Infusing humor into PSAs and purpose-driven marketing

purpose insights

by | Mar 6, 2024

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Somewhere along the way, the collective purpose-driven marketing industry fell into the idea that making people feel meant making people feel negatively. And I place myself in this industry. The public sector is about as purpose-driven as you can get. I’ve worked on everything from foster parent recruitment to increasing literacy to anti-drug campaigns. I know, not always as glamorous as my movie publicist days, but I certainly had no doubt I was serving the greater good! I simply insist on serving the greater good effectively…

As purpose-driven marketers, we know creative campaigns are most effective when they connect with people on an emotional level. Oh how easily we seem to forget there are emotions beyond sadness, fear, and guilt. It seems every other public service announcement is trying to scare us into not doing drugs, guilt us into donating to children, anger us into supporting animals, tug at our heartstrings to pull on our pursestrings, or in some way trigger us toward some action. Cue the violins.

Why does the PSA paradigm operate in an alternate humorless universe from the rest of the advertising and marketing industry? Our colleagues have long been using positive emotions to connect with audiences. Happiness, smiles, and even… laughter. When building awareness for serious social issues we may not have the luxury of big budgets for production, talent, and special effects. However, we certainly do have our creativity and our wit, and can use it to broach delicate subject matter in a way that can help people relate, remember and respond.

I was curious to see how often humor is used in PSA, so I turned to my most trusted research partner to make my case: Google. A 2011 article from Huffington Post, 10 Funny Public Service Ads About Serious Issues specifically showcases PSAs that use humor. That, my friends, is the most comprehensive, up-to-date list out there. Yes, 2011!

A more recent 2015 Contently article, Jillian Richardson’s 10 PSAs that actually get your attention, features seven out of ten PSAs using humor and wit, rather than the more typical guilt trip. Thousands of very worthy cause-related campaigns are out there, so surely more than this go beyond the negativity overload, right?

I kept digging. In 60 Powerful Social Issue Ads That Will Make You Stop and Think on Digital Synopsis, only three of the PSAs use humor instead of shock, disgust and shame. I’m talking blood, lots of blood; children, lots of children; and animals, lots of animals – in uncomfortable combinations of the aforementioned negative emotions. And the research shows (actual research! not just online searches), this approach is not effective. Some are turned off and their instinct is to look away. Some don’t buy it and believe the opposite of the message’s intent. Some are literally triggered due to similar trauma or experiences. We want them thinking about how inspired they feel to change their behavior. Purpose-driven marketing has evolved beyond the negative emotion model.

The case for humor is overwhelming. In Psychology for Marketers, Magda Kay asks, Does Humor In Advertising Help Sell More? (spoiler alert: yes!) “We buy from people we like, and humor is the easiest and fastest way to get there.” Our brains are hardwired to respond to people we like and we naturally like people we find funny. 

I think Point Park University’s Daniel Karell explains it best in his 2018 article Is Humor in Advertising Effective? (another spoiler alert: yes!) “Humor in advertising associates the positive emotion elicited from the advertisement with the brand.” Now we are getting somewhere!

In a campaign my team worked on while I was in-house at the Port of San Diego, we decided we had seen enough environmental PSAs that scare the public, preach to people, and leave audiences feeling, rather simply – depressed. Where’s the motivation in that? We wanted to give the community reminders about being responsible for their trash, while also building pride in our beautiful waterfront, and still making people laugh a little. We wanted to give them something to remember, fondly, when they were actually out having a picnic. A little something silly usually does the trick. Our #ThatsMyBay video series may not have dead animals or big sad eyes. But our monkey is stuffed and our mime has a tear, if that counts.

Need some help creating a fun purpose-driven campaign for your cause?