How did we make funny ads?

There is only one way to sustain humour over any period of time. With brands, as with people, the consistently funny ones are those that can laugh at themselves. This is what we did. Opticians are serious people in a serious business. They help people see. They stop people going blind. They don’t save dogs from haircuts or stop old folk sitting down on fairground rides by mistake. Those things are ridiculous.

For that reason, people love them. It is true that Specsavers as a company was never made the butt of the joke, but we laughed about the benefits of optometry. We made light of what we did, and by making light of it we made it welcoming and accessible, as well as highly visible. We might not always have been ‘edgy’ but we were always irreverent, and this irreverence began as an attitude towards our own function and purpose as a brand.

The more irreverent we were, the more people liked it. However, there was one line we never crossed. The joke was always about the benefit of eyesight, and never about the person with poor sight. This might seem a strange distinction, but it is a critical one. We always cast our short sighted heroes as heroes. They were always noble and defiant and bold. And what they were defying, of course, was us. We were the people who could have saved them. We don’t need you, they said. Nobody needs you. We’re fallible. We’re weak. We’re human. Look on us, and be humbled. Venturing into this realm of fallibility enabled us to demonstrate that we were human too. This, of course, was a rich vein for humour, and proved to be an enduring way to persuade people that Specsavers was a warm, likeable and, yes, highly expert brand. Expert? Of course. Because we are sharing our sacred knowledge – you Should’ve gone to Specsavers – and putting it into everyone’s mouths. As the Chinese proverb says, tell me and I forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand. This is the power of humour, not just to show and tell but to involve and make shareable.

Was this just a one off, a felicitous way in which Should’ve happened to work? I think not. My theory is that humour is Darwinian. Laughter is an expression of joy mixed with relief. It happens in that wonderful moment when you understand that SOMEONE ELSE has made that mistake and fallen down the well or been eaten by the tiger or planted an aspidistra in the toilet. You didn’t see it coming of course but you still survived. And that is the most important thing of all. Survival is a by-product. It’s the not seeing it coming that we love. And, like children, we are quite happy to relive that blindness to consequences over and over again, because it’s not the outcome that matters but the experience of going through it. Its the blindness itself that we enjoy. Maybe that’s why Specsavers’ ‘Collie’ ad was made in 2008, and ran for an incredible eleven years.

Now, all this stuff about not seeing things coming might seem to relate very closely to opticians, but clearly opticians are not the only kind of brand that can be funny (although looking at most current ads you do begin to wonder if that isn’t true). But no, any unexpected or ridiculous outcome can be funny. You don’t see it coming, but that’s a figure of speech. Its the twist that does it, and this is the other critical thing if you want to be funny. Your story has to have a twist that is plausible while defeating common sense. This juxtaposition is critical, and doing it well is the key to success in hiding the unexpected outcome and creating laughter. Too often these days, you see brands shying away from this and settling for warm and emotional instead. VW’s Darth Vader ad is an example. It was more cute and clever than outright funny because the twist does not have that bit of magic about it. It’s just a trick played by a quick witted adult. I always wanted the kid to zap the cat or something at the end, just to show that smug Dad of his and really wake us up. When we made a joke about a remote control in a Specsavers ad (several years earlier) we gave it to the kid, and he accidentally smashed his Dad’s car up with it. It might just be me, but I find that a lot funnier. It’s also ever so slightly anti-cute.

I think it’s that little bit of rebellion against reality that people really find liberating. You can see it again in our Zumba ad. I always remember getting a government leaflet about keeping warm in winter through my door just after we’d made that ad. The old folk in the ad were exactly the people pictured in the leaflet. But instead of sitting in front of unlit fires with rugs on their knees they were dancing around doing Zumba. When we ran that ad some of the team were terrified about upsetting old folk, but they loved it and they loved us for it. We turned their usual lives upside down and showed them that they could get up and dance. In this way, entertainment liberates people and sets them free.

Brands have no right to laugh at anyone but themselves, but when, like Specsavers, they allow themselves to find a joke in what they do, they sometimes find people reward them by attributing ownership of their entire marketplace. After all, if you can afford to laugh about it, you must own it. And really, this is all about ownership. If you use humour well it allows you to make the most of what you have got and become the undisputed champion for it. It allows you to make the things you have a right to talk about (because they belong to you) memorable, likeable and of course that then sells them, in the nicest imaginable way. And it works. It really works. It is absurd to think, well that only applies to an optician. It’s probably truer to say that if it can work for an optician, it can work for anyone.


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