Why has British TV advertising lost its sense of humour?


Last year, Nick Gill, executive creative director at BBH, was writing about the 2011 Arrows Awards. He made some interesting points about TV and how we seem to be watching more of it these days, rather than less.

He said that we Brits are now watching on average an astonishing four hours of TV a day, which has led to record commercial viewing. He also said that in 2011 the Arrows jury had over 700 entries to judge. And finally, he said of the 700 entries, "there wasn't a lot of comedy writing."

Instead of making us laugh, Nick tells us the ads delivered something else. Something that can be best described as "emotional impact" and he went on to illustrate this point by saying "music played a big part."

He picked out Match.com's 'Piano' ad. Muse's cover of 'Feeling Good' for Virgin Atlantic. And T-Mobile's spontaneous serenading of bemused airline passengers as some of the best examples of 2011.

So in short, humour is out and ads with people singing and dancing are in. Which is a bit of a shame if you ask me.

Why is humour taking such a backseat these days? I don't know and to be honest it's a puzzle. There' no shortage of humour on the TV, in fact you could say, with shows like The Inbetweeners and Miranda doing so well, the genre is as healthy as it's ever been.

We also have some talented comedy writers working in creative departments and some brilliant directors yearning for some comedy to shoot. You only have to look at some of the virals being created to see we haven't entirely lost our sense of humour.

Maybe it's down to the focus groups. Perhaps research is taking all the wit and fun out of TV commercials. Or is it that clients aren't prepared to take on a script that hasn't got 50 tick boxes checked before considering looking at it? But the thing is - ads have been researched for years. During that time I imagine countless ideas have bombed, but this hasn't stopped top creatives coming back with something funnier, stronger and better.

There is an argument that humour in advertising is risky. Yes, it can be extraordinarily effective when used correctly because people like funny things. But it needs to be well suited to its audience. If your audience doesn't get the joke, then the joke will be on you. So maybe people are scared of getting it wrong or they simply don't have the balls any more.

For me, using humour in advertising is a no-brainer. Like many people, I love ads that make me laugh. It's one of the reasons I joined this industry in the first place. I always remember my mum rolling about watching the ads (You hum it son, I'll play it) and saying how much better they are than the actual TV programmes. Just take a look at the awesome ad below and tell me if this spot, now almost 30 years old, doesn't get you rolling about.

It would be great to see some truly funny spots back on our screens.

Here's hoping 2012 is the year it starts.

John Fountain is a freelance copywriter. Follow @fountainjohn



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