On August 17, 1964, I started my first job as a copywriter for Prentice-Hall. By 9:30 that morning, I was handed a set of guidelines written by Richard Prentice Ettinger himself. One of the ten rules was: "Don't use humor. There's nothing funny about separating a man from this money."

In their seminal compendium, 2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success, published in 1998, Denny Hatch and Don Jackson just about avoid the subject totally. There are just three entries dealing with the subject:

  • Milt Pierce, in his 30 Questions to Ask Before Submitting Copy, asks "Is your copy funny or cute? (Avoid humor at all costs.)"
  • Craig Huey simply says, "Don't use humor."
  • However, Barbara Harrison in her 'Break the Rules' Rules of Effective Direct Mail Copywriting comments, "Humor is usually risky, but can prove highly effective."

So why would you want to take the risk? The simple answer: BREAKTHROUGH.

We've experienced increasing clutter in the mailbox and in other media. Consumer radar to sales pitches is at a peak, and so is disbelief. Humor, done properly, can break through the clutter and suspend the disbelief. The humor must relate directly to the situation and cannot be a joke per se. Actually, humor done through graphics--photos or illustrations--works better than humor done through copy. Think about the personalized cartoons that were used for years by such subscription mailers as Ad Age. There are, indeed, absolute "No-nos."

  1. Though I've been called the fastest pun in the West, punning just does not work in direct response efforts. If the pun is a good one, it immediately brands the copy as "clever," and that is antithetical (and uncle-thetical) to selling. If the pun is awful, it evokes "Oh no!" instead of "Oh yes!"
  2. Avoid double-entendres, particularly those of a risqué nature. In fact, have someone read the copy to make sure you're not committing one unconsciously.
  3. Parodies tend to backfire, especially those that parody the particular medium you're using. There was a famous credit card mailing (from the now-absorbed Chemical Bank) a decade ago in this category. The OE had no teaser on it other than being labeled "The Envelope" and all the other elements were similarly labeled. It was a flop.
  4. Do not do say anything or show anything that may demean prospects or customers in any way. You wouldn't do that to your own product and in direct response advertising the prospect is the hero, not the product.
  5. Do not try to bring humor into the following situations: insurance, loans, health issues, management decisions. Your first reaction may be: "What about the GEICO commercials?" Yes, they're quite humorous, and yes they have an 800#, but they're more branding than direct response. Take a look at Geico's direct mail: the humor has almost totally disappeared, replaced by tried (and tired) direct mail techniques.

So When and How Can Humor Work to Increase Response?

Here are some guidelines to follow if you're even thinking about using humor:

  1. As indicated above, the humor should be closely tied to what you're selling and to the prospect segment. You have to have double knowledge of your prospects--not only what makes them buy, but what makes them laugh.
  2. A corollary is "don't be funny for the sake of being funny." Use humor to get the prospect to your key selling point.
  3. Your goal should be a smile (of recognition), not a belly laugh. The latter can absolutely destroy the path to response, while the former achieves the same nod of affinity that an audience-targeting headline might. The best humor is often incredible insight into the human condition. Think of the two great Bill Jayme envelope teasers for Condè Nast Traveler and for Psychology Today: "How much do you tip the waiter when you're planning to steal the ashtray?" and, "Do you close the bathroom door even when you're the only one home?"
  4. Humorous quotations from the famous or infamous can hedge the risk you take. If Yogi Berra, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, or H.L. Mencken said it, that may brand it as funny and non-threatening. Of course, when I submitted a subscription solicitation package to New Jersey Monthly with an envelope tease that said "Woody Allen was WRONG!" with a Johnson box that started with his quote, "The curtain rises on a vast primitive wasteland, not unlike certain parts of New Jersey," I didn't get far.
  5. Get a reading on it. If you don't have the time or money for formal focus groups, comp up the idea and send it to 20 of your best customers. Then call, and probe for a negative reaction.

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image of Lee Marc Stein

Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation, insurance and financial services, high tech, and B2B marketing.