Social Media Author Jay Baer wrote an interesting piece this week (August 4) about a case of social media humor gone wrong. The culprit: the Facebook page of the Evansville, Indiana airport. The page featured the following post that people were responding to:
We just saw a tweet from Google facts that an airline in India only hires women because they are lighter, so they save $500,000 in fuel!!! Insert your women driver jokes below – haha!
You read correctly – they were asking people to submit their “women are crappy drivers” jokes as a way to engage. Shortly after the post started growing, it was taken down.
The Social Meida Humor Hall of Shame
Certainly it’s not the worst example of a fail. Yet, Jay correctly called out the obvious – not funny. Stereotypes that offend aren’t funny. Hell, from my perspective, they’re not even creative. It’s pandering to the lowest common denominator. To a marketer and comic improviser – that part is as offensive! If you know my blog, you know I love humor. It’s part of my improvisation and sketch background. And there’s a right way to do it.
Offensive Humor Doesn’t Strengthen Relationships
Engagement is about building relationships. Engagement based on negative sentiment and humor is not real engagement – it’s not building a healthy relationship that lasts. Positive, funny humor that works also strengthens relationships. Here’s the thing: stereotypes are rarely funny. There are exceptions. There is the “club” rule in comedy – if you are a member of the club, you can joke about the club (group). Be wary, though – the social media stage isn’t a comedy club. That’s key. Humor has context, timing, etc.
Not to mention the fact that this type of humor opens up the organization to potential liability should female workers claim it creates / contributes to a hostile workplace for women.
Testing Marketing Humor to Reduce Risk
Where I disagreed with Baer (and he acknowledged it – because he’s a great social media listener) is that he suggested testing humor by asking a sample of customers, “Do you think this is funny?”
That approach doesn’t work well in my marketing and humor experience. Humor is visceral; something is either funny or it’s not. Humor is a gut reaction – not an intellectual response. It’s not about what you “think.” If you ask for an ‘analysis’ people will craft a position or response they think *you* want to hear if the joke isn’t funny. Here’s how you know if humor works: put your work/picture/joke in front of people and wait for their reaction. It should evoke a laugh or smile or a cringe-worthy grimace – something visceral. Then, you can ask why? You want an honest emotional response – not a “well, it’s not *that* bad” softened rationalization. If it sucks, it sucks. Back to the drawing board. Visceral reactions don’t lie. Rationalizations do (and often unintentionally).
Edgy humor can be great (and this Facebook wasn’t edgy – just dumb). Edgy marketing humor shouldn’t aim at a specific group of people by age, race, gender, etc. Seems incredibly obvious right? Well, even so, people still get that wrong. You shouldn’t need to test for that. Use some common sense. Now does some edgy marketing humor offend and still work? Sadly, yes. However, the odds are against it, and there’s huge downside. So why go there?
Let’s be clear – you can’t mitigate all risk. You want a 100% guaranteed way to reduce the risk that humor will backfire? Don’t use it. And we need more good humor out there, not less.
So what does work? Making fun of situations we can all relate to. If you sell to consultants, for example, poking fun at the ridiculous stuff clients ask for is a universal pain for consultants. Who the hell hasn’t been asked a million times, “Can I pick your brain?” Erika Napoletano wrote a great piece about it called, “Don’t Be an Askhole.” It was funny because it was true; and it poked fun at clueless people who expect freebies without thinking about the ask. And that is not singling out any one specific demographic group.
In the specific case of the Evansville Airport in Indiana – there are many things they could do to have some fun. For example, suppose a large percent of their traffic represents business travelers. Ask people to submit their “worst business travel” stories or “worst travel nightmare.” Or, ask them what they would rather be doing other than business travel (getting a root canal, standing in line at the bank)…there are lots of things that could engage people that don’t involve making people the butt of the joke.
Humor and Redemption
You can bounce back from crimes of un-funny. What the Evansville Airport could have done, for example, was parody itself and its lack of good judgment *after* it apologized and fixed the problem (in this case taking down the post). Own it and fix it first. Parody before remedying the situation trivializes legitimate customer complaints and signals to people that an organization doesn’t get it.
Humor is a Craft: Get Thee To a Writery
Ultimately, humor is a craft. If you’re not sure and you want to start using more edgy humor in your social media (and I’m all for it), hire writers who have a successful track record with it. Anyone can be witty and make people smile – and that’s huge. If you want to be edgy, look for someone with comedy chops.
What do you think? How would you redeem yourself from a social media humor fail?
Kathy – What a great and fun look at how to properly use humor. You applied it to marketing but the same ideas apply to all humor. It’s much better to make fun of a situation or circumstance than a person or group of people. The one exception I will make to that is if you are laughing at yourself. Self-depreciating humor can work really well to help you seem more human and more approachable.
Great point. Self-deprecation is a great too, Carol. And, like any other form of humor, it has to have context and balance. As I mentioned, had the airport fixed the problem and then poked fun at itself, that could have been a way to bounce back. A company that parodies itself should have credibility first or parody doesn’t work too well. Too much self-deprecation can backfire, though, in my experience – especially for women. I was just interviewed for a women’s executive magazine on this exact topic: http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2013/08/01/women-arent-funny-why-is-this-gender-based-myth-gaining-traction/
The one exception to the never poke fun at a group humor rule (other than self-deprecation) is in a comedy club. Having done stand-up – the rules are different. If you are a member of the club, you can poke fun at the club and people who go to comedy clubs know that. It’s understood that there are different rules there than on the corporate marketing stage.
Your’re right Kathy. Sometimes it can be fine line. If you never offend anyone you likely have a boring brand and no raving fans. But sometimes its just common sense. It’s taking the time to stop and think.
Absolutely, Ryan. Common sense is important and it’s amazingly uncommon. Taking things to the extreme of never taking risks is failure, too.
This was great Kathy. There is a fine balance between edgy and offensive. I have been trying to incorporate more humor and play in my articles, so this was a timely piece for me. Thanks Kathy!
I think I disagree but I’m not entirely sure why just yet! Lol.
Maybe it’s because a lot of the time I think that offensive is funny. It’s just my personal taste – especially if it’s something that’s true.
I’d never be offensive in public though, I just like to make jokes to myself or with my husband.
But what I don’t think is funny is when it’s dumb. When people are trying too hard to be funny they go way overboard.
Here’s the thing, I fancy myself as a funny guy, not a comedian just generally a funny guy. I love telling funny stories that make people laugh and making fun of the obvious humor surrounding much of life. Yes, that often means that my inside voice sometime becomes my outside voice when it should have just stayed locked up in my head.
Anyone who has ever tried to be funny in print will tell you that it’s the hardest way to express humor. The ability to deliver humor in print is an art unto it’s self. So I think is wise to just stay away from it, especially in social media where brevity is king.
Now, onto something unrelated but part of the post. I hate that sharing information and helping people, or worse asking for help has become a million dollar market that “consultants” have laid claim to. If you ask to “pick someones brain,” or for advice on a subject they might know more about than you, your an “askhole!” I get it there or some people out there that are takers and will take you to time and emotional bankruptcy if you let them, but you don’t have to let me.
Then those that use the term “askhole,” want to say; “However, we should have the philosophy that “givers gain.” How the hell to you give to gain and always expect something in return? I’ll be glad to have coffee with you for 30 minutes. After our time is up where I really don’t give you much of anything other than my time, which is valuable, I say well I be glad to help you here is my fee schedule.
I’m a helper, I just believe that if we all help each other we all go places. Just saying.