The importance of “cultural relationship” in comedy for content marketing

By Posted in - ALL & Content Creation & Content Marketing Resources & Content Strategy & Examples on March 22nd, 2015 0 Comments

If your target audience spend all of their time reading BuzzFeed articles punctuated with animated gifs, then it makes perfect sense that you should adopt that style in your content marketing, right? Well, maybe not always…

This week the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee came under the firing line for issuing a press release that uses celebrity animated gifs to punctuate its key messages. The release takes a serious stance against Obama’s views and approach to the enforcement of immigration laws, with each of the ten listed points that it makes “enhanced” (a-hem) with a celebrity gif:

Image of press release using gifs

See the full release here:

I’m a big fan of using comedy and humour as a technique to enhance your audience engagement activities and any campaign communications, but an important factor to consider when planning your approach is the cultural relationship that your perceived audience have with you. Any organisation can use humour, but you will only get it right by understanding how others view you to begin with. And this is an example of an organisation getting this very wrong.

In simple terms, the more serious an organisation is perceived to be by an audience, the less “far out” it needs to go with it’s level of humour in order to have the desired effect of being perceived as funny. The less serious the personality an organisation is perceived to be, the more radical its level of humour must be to achieve a connection through laughter. In a very non-scientific way (sorry), this chart attempts to show what I mean by this.

Chart mapping how funny your organisation needs to be


(Download a version of this image here for your wall)

A useful theory for thinking about this further is Dr Peter McGraw’s Benign-Violation theory of humour (see also the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder). The theory states that in order for something to be found funny, something that is benign and a violation of that must both be present. See this simple diagram that McGraw and his team created to conceptualise this (recreated here for Utterly Content):

Benign violation theory of humour

(Download a version of this image here for your wall)

What we see playing out with the Judiciary Committee is a classic case of misjudging a) how people perceive them, and b) the extent of the “violation” that they have played in an attempt at humour. In other words, the violation too much of a violation. Instead of causing laughter, the reaction instead is shock and even disdain from some parties.

Of course, the “shock” response can cause content to go viral (the “WTF effect”, we might call it), but for all the wrong reasons and perhaps overshadowing the true message that they are trying to communicate. In this case, consensus seems to be that they got it very very wrong.

I’ll be talking more about this topic in my session at Confab Central in Minneapolis this Spring (20-22 May 2015) if you’d like to hear more about planning for comedy and humour in your content strategy. Please go ahead and use my speaker discount code PLAYLE2015 to get a discounted rate to attend the conference. 

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