(The second article in a two-part series, which opened with “Is the Golden Era of Humor in Advertising Over?”)
“I’m funny how? … Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”
— Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), “Goodfellas”
For generations advertising has honed a stand-up style of humor that blends commerce and comedy to entertain, inform and sell.
The gold standard of this golden age is embodied by smile-in-the-mind print ads …
… and genuinely comic spots:
But as social media devour consumer attention and ad spend, so the send-and-receive model of ad humor has (d)evolved. When speed trumps strategy and virality is all, the archetype of brand as stand-up — alone in the spotlight, demanding our attention, selling a joke — has spawned a new and chaotic model: brand as class clown.
Of course, not all brands have the aspiration (or ability) to beclown themselves. But those that do are embracing novel commercial comic stylings — wackaging, tacticality, brandinage — that together form a distinctive tone of voice: brandter.
First and hindmost in the pantheon of brandter are gag-name companies — which seem to cluster in specific industries:
Fast-food: Abra Kebabra; A Salt & Battery; Habemus Pizza
Coffee shops: Brewed Awakening; The Daily Grind; Deja Brew
Hairdressers: Shear Lock Combs; Hair Force One; Curl Up and Dye
Toilet rental companies: A Royal Flush; Callahead; Johnny on the Spot
Such midlarity is also to be found in cheese names (Dirt Lover, Dragon’s Breath), beer brands (Tactical Nuclear Penguin, The Big Lebrewski) and, inevitably, strains of weed (Dank Sinatra, Notorious THC). For some bizarre reason, wordplay is also popular with certain religious denominations:
Pun-note humor has long defined small-business banter, after all, You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps! What’s curious is how its peculiar tone — both teasing and twee — has permeated the mainstream and been adopted by some of the world’s biggest companies.
Commercial packaging has two aims: to protect and promote. Just ask the first lady of fruit, Miss Chiquita Banana, who bestickers her self-protected products to stand out from the bunch.
Once in a while, packaging’s twin aims are met with wit and style — take Chiclets gum, Hrum & Hrum’s nut-sack squirrels, Milgrad milk or Domino’s pizza:
But a fine line separates witty packaging and irksome “wackaging” — where brands break the fourth wall of product presentation with overfamiliar, faux friendly and cloyingly quirky copy.
It’s no accident that the Waitrose Cooks’ range (“a dash of this … a drizzle of that”) feels like having Jamie Oliver at your elbow …
As the design agency responsible, Lewis Moberly, explained:
“Strict recipes have been replaced by casual banter. Waitrose Cooks’ ongoing dialogue captures this new spontaneity. What better way to bond with the brand?”
Although brand-bonding through casual banter is nothing new (see Ben & Jerry’s “flavor graveyard”), the patient zero of contemporary wackaging is commonly identified as Innocent Drinks — which stormed Britain’s smoothie market in the late 1990s with a brand voice that was sassy or saccharine, depending on your tolerance for marketing whimsy.
Since then, the plague of perky packaging has left few sectors untouched.
Given the task of tempting carnivores away from meat, it’s not surprising that plant-based food brands deploy wacky “I can’t believe it’s not butter” dazzle — both in naming (Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Tofurky) and packaging. Take the “soy-based chicken style chunks” from The Vegetarian Butcher called “What the Cluck,” or the plant-based “pork sausages” from This which are served with a side of Innocent-esque copy:
Virgin Atlantic seems incapable of leaving any object unblessed with its brand voice — from ear plugs labeled “Shhhh…” to “Stay well, Use gel” hand disinfectant:
And even the British bank First Direct attempted brandter in its website’s small print:
“We’re obsessive about the quality of our service, so we monitor or record calls to make sure everything’s tickety boo.”
Striking a balance between sass and strategy is not always easy. In 2004, it took Jaffa Cakes just six months to withdraw a bold new line of perky packaging that relegated its logo to brandter gags like: “I never share,” “This box is empty,” and “One for you, three for me”:
If some brands brandter with perky quip, others deploy logorrhea. And what Innocent did for wackaging, Oatly has done for chatty packaging.
Designed to sound like “it’s made by a bunch of oat punks down in the basement,” Oatly’s brandter bellows from its products, ads and social feeds, combining maximalist copy with a Gen-Z vibe:
Of course, Oatly didn’t invent packaging prolixity. Brands such as Angostura and Dr. Bronner’s have, for decades, crammed minuscule messages onto their labels, even if they remained largely unread:
But Oatly’s brandtering barrage must also be read contextually, both as a rejection of its own clichéd legacy branding, and as a reaction to the competing semiotics of Boomer brands (Quaker Oat Beverage), Millennial blands (Willa’s) and Gen-Z adorkables (Minor Figures).
In 2019 PepsiCo withdrew its Quaker Oat Beverage after less than a year, having failed to pivot “the 142-year-old leader in oats” to new non-dairy drinkers who care less about “heart health” than flavor. Notably, Quaker didn’t even have the nerve to call its beverage “m!ilk,” “m*lk,” “oatmilk” or “notmilk.”
Tactical ads react instantly to a moment in time. The most basic iteration is a newspaper open letter calling, for example, for more consumer tracking (Facebook), world peace (Yoko Ono) or the return of the death penalty (Donald Trump).
Such broadsides are rarely amusing, and when they attempt wit, risk stumbling into snide. Take Slack’s hubristic “welcome” letter to Microsoft Teams in 2016, which echoed Apple’s legendary 1981 “welcome” letter to IBM. Or Burger King’s 2021 “Women Belong in the Kitchen” manifesto, timed for International Women’s Day, which was widely derided as tin-eared.
But when well executed, humorous tacticality overlays acknowledged brand characteristics onto current events with a deft comic timing and touch. Any number of brands deploy the technique once in a while — as Veet depilatory cream did in 2009 to mark Barack Obama’s inauguration, or British Airways did for the 2018 World Cup:
During Covid such brands as McDonald’s, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Chiquita, Audi and Coca-Cola stunted tactical logo gags to promote social distancing:
For a small cohort of companies, tacticality is a defining asset. The Irish gambling brand Paddy Power, for instance, regularly deploys instant-response adverts and activations to promote its irreverent brand character and play on the mercurial nature of betting.
And although self-storage has no obvious claims to comedy or current affairs, Manhattan Mini Storage embraces tactical humor with similar vigor and success:
Because any news story worth piggybacking is definitionally controversial, “newsjacking” can be a high-wire act. And occasionally brands slip. Last August, for example, a viral Twitter thread by @lilliandaisies called out “companies and brands who participated in the global humiliation of Amber Heard and profited from the Depp v. Heard trial,” including Milani Cosmetics, Redbox, Lidl, Starbucks and Duolingo:
The individual responsible for Duolingo’s online “joke” subsequently tweeted a mea culpa that encapsulated not just the risk of newsjack brandter, but the peril of handing the keys of a brand to an inexperienced social-media manager:
“I made a mistake, it’s deleted and I’m listening. I’m 24 – a yr out of college – managing an account that I didn’t expect to grow how it did & learning social responsibility on a curve. Taking full ownership. It’s an early career lesson for me and I’m learning to be better.”
A more successful newsjack strategy has recently been rolled out by Butterkist, which has co-opted the “popcorn” emoji — used online for the social-media schadenfreude of rolling news drama — to hijack the “Partygate” scandal that embroiled Boris Johnson and the “Wagatha Christie” libel trial between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney, the wives of two British football players:
When deftly handled, tactical humor can also help with crisis comms (assuming the crisis is not a tragedy). In 2011, Johnson & Johnson responded to the shortage of its o.b. tampons by creating a comic “triple sorry” power ballad which could be personalized for any name:
And in 2018, KFC apologized to British consumers for running out of chicken with a witty play on birds:
Finally, tactical humor can be flipped for serious effect. In 2015, the Salvation Army in South Africa newsjacked the internet’s fleeting obsession with a dress that appeared white and gold to some and blue and black to others, to hammer home a stark message about misogynistic violence:
When two brands go to war, viral clicks are there to score.
Brandinage describes brands joshing on the socials for clicks and giggles. And for those with the comic chops and commercial confidence, it can be a powerful catalyst of engagement.
The reigning heavyweight of brandinage is surely Wendy’s, which has put a pugilistic spin on its “Where’s the beef?” slogan by cheerfully beefing with all comers.
So eager is Wendy’s to cross tweets with others, it established “#NationalRoastDay” where brands as big as Aflac, Axe, Cinnabon, Coca Cola, Doritos, Gillette, Head and Shoulders, Monster Energy, Oscar Meyer, Oreo, Popeyes, T-Mobile, Triscuit, UPS and Yoplait beg to be insulted … and signal boosted.
A few companies deploy brandinage against customers. The no-frills Irish airline Ryanair, for example, revels in its Millwall status (“no-one likes us, we don’t care”) by teasing and taunting its passengers online:
But for the majority brands, brandinage is a hit-and-miss affair — arriving, like true virality, out of the blue. In February 2021, for example, Weetabix tweeted an image of Heinz beans atop its cereal …
… and the corporate world went brandter bonkers.
Not only did Heinz reply, but so did Amazon, Google, Lidl, Ford, Domino’s, Papa Johns, Tinder, Tesco, Virgin Atlantic, Brew Dog, LinkedIn, Harrods, Costa Coffee, Marmite, Andrex, Iceland Air, Squarespace, Wimbledon, the National Trust, the London Fire Brigade, the London Ambulance Service, the National Health Service, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Mail and the British Consulate in New York … to name a few.
Such brandwagon-jumping is the driving force of brandinage — zingers abhor a vacuum — and while it is ideal for the fleeting rough and tumble of social media, it works also IRL, as demonstrated by Newcastle Brown Ale’s billboard smackdown of Stella Artois:
The tone of brandinage is subtly different from traditional knocking-copy humor, where Pepsi prodded Coke, or Apple mocked Microsoft. Brandinage is quicker and wittier, and instead of searching for a knockout blow, it invites rope-a-dope sparring.
The flexibility of brandinage allows brands to initiate tactical ceasefires, when the mood sours against snark. For example, during the pandemic, Burger King asked its customers to order from McDonald’s (and others) because “restaurants employing thousands of staff really need your support,” and Tesco suggested its customers pop into their local to support the ailing pub trade.
Calendrical hooks have always been catnip for humorous ads, from St Valentine’s and St Patrick’s days, to Father’s Day and Diwali:
The confectionary brand Polo borrowed “National Honesty Day” (April 30) to promote gifting its mints to those with bad breath. And Equinox banned anyone from joining its gyms on January 1, 2023, because “You are not a New Year’s resolution. Your life doesn’t start at the beginning of the year.”
Even Shrove Tuesday gets the occasional look in:
Of course, the All Saints Day of tactical humor is April 1, which has evolved over the decades from a haphazard bit of fun to a brandtering obligation. (The Wikipedia page listing Google’s April Fool’s Day antics runs to 10,000 words.)
Last April Fool’s Day saw, for example: Deliveroo ban pizza with pineapple; 7-Eleven launch a 0.7 ounce “Tiny Gulp”; the National Weather Service abandon Celsius and Fahrenheit for Kelvin; T-Mobile trumpet a “new magenta” that was (wait for it) identical to the old magenta; Kotex propose “Late Nighter chocolate pads,” with raspberry filling, “for your period cravings”; Omaha Steaks unveil “Meat Sweats” roll-on perspirants (original beef, lighter fluid and mesquite); and Hellman’s collaborate on “crispety crunchety” Butterfinger mayo.
Given branding’s current obsession with zany mashups and click-bait merch, these corporate poissons d’avril pranks risk losing what little currency they once had.
Is last April’s spoof “Spicy Sprite” collaboration between Sprite and McDonald’s any more unlikely (or amusing) than Sprite’s actual “cucumber flavor”? Or, for that matter McDonald’s Cactus Plant Flea Market collaboration, which included an “adult-orientated Happy Meal”? As Shakespeare warned, “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.”
Furthermore, not all anniversaries suit tacticality. Last November, KFC blamed an “automated push notification … linked to calendars that include national observances” for a tweet to German customers that announced:
“It’s memorial day for Kristallnacht! Treat yourself with softer cheese on your crispy chicken. Now at KFCheese!”
The Germans have a word for it Witzbeharrsamkeit — “joke insistence” — or “unashamedly repeating a bon mot until it is properly heard by everyone present.”(1)
And the peril of wackaging, brandinage and tacticality is that brandter becomes intolerably irksome — like the insistent sleeve tug of a corporate toddler who demands not simply our money, but our approbation, laughter and love.
Humorous ads in the golden age were always somehow framed. Posters, print ads, radio spots and commercials knew their place (the ad break) and generally respected its confines. In stark contrast, brandter pursues us with the pestering insinuation of Monty Python’s “Arthur Nudge”:
To add insult to irritation, brandter is fast becoming the default voice for even non-commercial corporate interactions. Does every roadwork need a smile? Does every Tube ride require a gag? Does every dog bowl have to be knowing? Does every cable switchbox interior demand a joke?
The trouble with class clowns is that they seldom know when to shut up. And the danger of brandter is that April 1 never ends, like a cacophonous commercial Groundhog Day.
Some brands are destined to be brandter brands, and a few pull it off with aplomb. But consumers neither aspire to be mates with brands, nor expect brands to endlessly caper. Not every news story requires a corporate gag. Not every surface needs to be as jokey as a popsicle stick or as cutesy as a Love Heart.
When every brand breaks the fourth wall, the theater of commerce becomes untenable. And so companies should heed the words of Winston Wolf in “Pulp Fiction”: “Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean that you have character.”
More on Brands From Bloomberg Opinion’s Ben Schott:
• Why Brands Are Reeking Havoc on Our Noses
• Brands Are Discovering Their Animal Spirits
• Branding 101 from 007 — and ‘Dr. No’
(1) Guilty as charged: I invented this word for my 2013 collection of German neologisms, “Schottenfreude.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion