Laughing (With or) At You?

November 2, 2015 — Brian Burr

We’ve all experienced embarrassing moments; a clumsy misstep sends you tumbling to the floor; an errant turn of the fork transforms your new shirt into a Jackson Pollock painting; a faulty wheel on a push cart sends half a pitcher of sangria to the ground outside the elevators on CBX’s fourth floor… (OK, maybe that last one was just me).

It’s important to remember that embarrassing moments only define you when you let them. Compose yourself when your face is flushed and your ears are burning so that people laugh with, instead of at you. Being able to play off the moment and laugh with everyone demonstrates an authenticity that people find endearing.

This idea is not exclusive to human-to-human interactions. In a marketplace where consumers are constantly searching for real connections with brands, a little self-depreciation can go a long way.

Brands using humor in their messaging is nothing new, but lately we’ve seen more brands turn the focus of the jokes back on themselves. Things that marketing teams would have once worked hard to hide are now leading the conversation.

Take Dressbarn’s Fall 2015 campaign. After decades of battling consumers’ hesitancy to bridge the gap between women’s fashion and a place where animals live, Dressbarn decided enough was enough. The new campaign, photographed by acclaimed fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, shows Dressbarn’s newest clothing modeled by Hilary Rhoda posing with a variety of barnyard animals. The tagline informing consumers, “It’s our name. Deal with it,” showcases not only the brand’s ability to poke fun, but also a humanness that helps consumers see beyond the joke. The campaign demonstrates that honesty and openness can help create meaningful connections with consumers, and turn embarrassing perceptions into positive equities.

But keep in mind that being silly is not where the conversation ends. Words on a page fall flat when there’s nothing to support them. For example, taking a moment to laugh and dust yourself off might defuse an embarrassing situation, but people are still going to expect you to clean up the sangria you just spilled.

Dressbarn’s campaign works simply because the new collection is able to stand its ground against the embarrassing perceptions of the joke. The defense: Dressbarn actually sells nice clothing. Would this campaign have worked if Dressbarn only sold overalls and straw hats? Of course not. But by using a notable fashion photographer and model, Dressbarn is able to build credibility for their products and reinforce the fact that the only thing funny about the brand is the name.

Take a few moments to watch South Dakota’s most recent economic development campaign. The campaign jokingly attempts to convince audiences that South Dakota is a better place to live than Mars. The narrator highlights some of state’s major selling points, including breathable air, to convince consumers that living in South Dakota is better than dying on Mars.

Here’s why nobody is laughing with South Dakota; the advertisement doesn’t say anything to back up the claim that living in South Dakota is actually better than living on Mars. This campaign only leaves consumers questioning, “How bad is living in South Dakota that they would even compare it to living on Mars?” or “Why would I choose South Dakota over all the other places I could live that aren’t Mars?” South Dakota’s failure to follow up the joke with any serious claim leaves the audience with nothing more than unintended associations with words like “barren,” “cold,” and “dying.”

Using humor at your own expense can be a clever way to deflect and even correct embarrassing shortcomings. But before going there, make sure to ask yourself, “Will my consumers be laughing with me, or at me?”

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