Funny Business and the Lack of Humor in Web Design

by on 22nd May 2010 with 25 Comments

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In a recent post on things that web designers can learn from print designers, I pointed out that professional web design seems awkwardly void of comedy while other forms of marketing seem to embrace it. I decided to explore this area further and make it into full-fledged post.

So today we’re going to look at the world of funny marketing and why you should add it to your arsenal of design tools.

Humor Adds Value

Humor is one of the primary ways marketers get consumers to pay attention to their pleas. The reason for this is simple: humor actually adds value to an advertisement.

Generally speaking, many of the ads you see are completely worthless to you. For instance, if you’ve just eaten, a Burger King ad won’t seem very enticing because it doesn’t meet any need that you currently possess. You’re therefore likely to ignore the ad completely after a quick glance.

This results in wasted money on the part of Burger King as they no doubt paid quite a bit of money to get you to see that announcement of a new burger or distribution of a limited time coupon. However, if the ad is funny, suddenly it meets an almost never ceasing need that we all possess: entertainment.

If something makes us laugh, it makes us feel good, which in turn carries over to the way we feel about the product. If you see enough funny Burger King commercials, there’s a good chance you’ll start to think positively about Burger King. Perhaps this will lead you to mentally rate them a little higher than McDonald’s and eventually lead to more Whopper sales.

Before we dive into how humor can be effective in web design, let’s look at some places where we see humor working effectively to add value to an advertisement.

Commercials

In 2009 advertisers paid $3 million dollars for a single 30 second ad spot during the Super Bowl; that’s $100,000 per second (source). Some advertisers such as Pepsi have historically spent over $700 million for this one event!

The reason advertisers are willing to pay so much is because they know people are watching, and not just the football game. The Super Bowl is famous for having the best commercials of any television event all year. Many people who aren’t remotely interested in football actually tune in just to see the ad spots.

The primary reason people do this is because they know advertisers like Budweiser and Doritos are guaranteed to deliver a few good laughs. Super Bowl commercials are uncommonly funny, and people love them.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of funny television commercials.

Get A Mac

Despite being recently cancelled, the long running Mac vs. PC ad campaign was wildly popular and quite successful for Apple. Even many people who would never have imagined buying an Apple would eagerly await the next installment to see what that crazy PC would do next.

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I was in a marketing class a couple of years ago and the students were asked to name their favorite thing about Apple. Most of the class named these commercials as a major positive turning point for how they viewed Apple computers. This is an excellent example of a company effectively using humor to market an otherwise serious product.

I Can’t Believe I Ate That Whole Thing

Alka Seltzer has been using humor in commercials for about as long as I’ve been alive. Recently they remade one of their classics with Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond.

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Giving your customers a funny phrase that they can say every time they use your product (even if they’re sick!) is a great way to get them to choose you over the competition.

Hands Off

For Super Bowl 44, Doritos held a contest for people to send in their own homemade commercials. The hilarious video below was one the winners.

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Old Spice Smell Like a Man

This Old Spice commercial goes through a series of random unexpected changes that make it quite funny to watch. Even humor that makes little to no sense adds value to the advertisement simply because people like to watch it.

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Print Ads

With print it’s extremely easy to avoid ads by turning the page in a magazine or tossing the piece of junk mail in the garbage. Humor can be a great way to grab someone’s attention so they can evaluate your product.

The ads below from AdsOfTheWorld all use this technique in different ways. Notice that being funny doesn’t have to make someone howl with laughter, sometimes a simple smile is just enough.

Humor can be goofy, creepy, or even intentionally offensive. All of these are simply techniques to draw your attention for an extended period of time. (Click to see the full ads.)

Scope

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HP Printers

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Disney Star Wars Weekends

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Pest Control

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Yamaha

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Olla Condoms

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Humor on the Web

Obviously, to indicate that the Internet has any shortage of humorous content would be absurd. The web has become the first place many of us look to for entertainment. Funny YouTube videos of infants biting people go viral and are seen by millions of people all over the world.

However, many web designers and entrepreneurs consume this content without ever really seeing its value. The ability of humor to draw people in is very powerful and can serve as a strong competitive advantage and marketing tool. As proof, let’s look at a real scenario where humorous marketing by a single individual led to the birth of a phenomenally popular site.

The Oatmeal

The Oatmeal is an amazing site filled with comics, quizzes and stories such as “How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell” and “Why I’d Rather Be Punched in the Testicles than Call Customer Service.” These crudely drawn bits of hilarity receive millions of unique hits every single month.

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Interestingly enough, The Oatmeal founder Matthew Inman started the site as a way to market his online dating service Mingle2.

Inman knew that advertising for yet another dating site was probably not the best way to drive traffic. Instead he began drawing funny cartoons that could serve in more of a viral role as those who read them passed them on to others.

The Oatmeal quickly grew into its own beast. The site is less than a year old but has already had enough success to provide Inman with a full-time income large enough to abandon his web design career. As further proof of The Oatmeal’s success, it was recently featured on the Carson Daly show and an Oatmeal book is currently under way.

Funny Web Designs

If you search for a design blog roundup of examples of great typography, you’ll find tons (and this is a supposedly overlooked area of web design). If you search for funny print ads, you’ll find a million. However, it’s actually really difficult to locate non-humor sites (unlike sites such as the Oatmeal, which are completely humor focused) that use humor as a primary design element.

The site below is a brilliant implementation. Aquent, a designer placement firm, created this site to help people looking for a web designer to learn what they need and who to hire to get it. Each piece of the site is interactive and explains what it is and what kind of person you’ll need to hire to get one.

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Though the purpose of the site is serious, the site’s actual design is pure web designer tongue in cheek. Everything is labelled with completely obvious statements and over excited statements like “LOGO!” and “OMG Flash Banner.”

Humor as a Single Design Element

Though the site above is great, my real suggestion lies not in creating sites completely overflowing with sarcasm but instead in incorporating small elements of humor into an otherwise professional design.

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The design above uses a somewhat humorous picture of a guy holding up a sign as a showcase for the work of the design firm. Simple, effective, funny! It’s not laugh out loud funny, it’s just a nice way to make the page more welcoming and friendly.

Silly Characters

By far the most popular way sites infuse this type of humor is through crazy illustrations. Here are a few great examples:

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Funny characters are an excellent way to make your site both funny and more personal. However, remember that this method is becoming extremely common while other possibilities are left largely unexplored.

Closing Thoughts

My advice for the web design community is to go beyond goofy illustrations. Use funny headlines, photos, UI elements and whatever else you can think of to make your sites friendlier, more memorable and more likely to be shared.

Remember that you don’t have to be a comedian or possess the ability to draw comics. You don’t have to make people laugh until they cry or even chuckle to themselves. Just look for times and places where it is appropriate to throw in some of your own tongue and cheek, throw in a silly photo, write out a clever quip, or dare I say even do something that could be construed as mildly offensive.

If you know of any sites that do this particularly well, please leave a link in the comments below. If you actually own a site that you think is funny, be sure to submit it to our CSS gallery as I’m always on the lookout for these types of examples!

Comments & Discussion

25 Comments

  • Todd

    I’m a desktop developer, and a fair amount of the points explained here are a good way to creating a unique desktop application. A serious function (This means that the application usually works well) combined with a dash of humour to lighten the whole caboodle up, makes for a really intuitive application. It’s lots better to get someone to use the application because they want to rather than because they need to.

  • http://www.murmurey.com Asif

    Nice post, like it. thanks for sharing!!

  • http://www.youronlinestories.com stories

    Great article!
    I think most sites must go that way…

  • http://www.chipps.ca Adrian

    This is a great article. I love humour and seeing it in websites is great and it is definitely something I should consider adding to my own site. Unfortunately I think it would be difficult to persuade clients that this is something they should add to their own websites.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mamunabms Abdullah Al Mamun

    http://www.internetonlinewebsite.com/ this one is really amazing………….. :-)

  • http://ferida.info Ayesha Stasiuk

    At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, “If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving twenty-five dollar cars that got 1000 mi/gal.” :: Recently General Motors addressed this comment by releasing the statement, “Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?”

  • Tired of Arial

    In my personal experience, I think the lack of humor (and actual advertising) on the web is due to the people writing/approving the copy. I have worked for both large corps and small design boutiques. THey share one horrible ugly trait. The who write copy and manage the project are not actual advertising specialists. They don’t even enjoy looking at HTML emails and advertising! Its all a bunch of passive techno-babel – most of the lack a call to action stronger than “click here.” There is no humor because these people are afraid and humorless.

  • http://www.lukasfolio.com Lukas

    Really great article – that will help me to explain those things to my client – not really well educated someone who just want to have a website and is afraid of making bold moves.

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  • http://www.animhut.com/ sriganesh

    great article ! its true , how the humor could get good inspiration and in business, i come to know more through this article.
    ads promoting the business in a funny way it too good. and oatmeal is one among my fav all the time

  • http://www.disappointlabs.com disappoint

    HELL NO! WEB DESIGN IS SERIOUS BUSINESS!

    Humor is an important attribute, but it’s seldom exploited to its full potential. We as web developers need to start experimenting more, and that includes trying our hand at being funny!
    Case in point: the name of my blog, “Disappoint Labs” – gotta warn visitors not to expect anything outstanding, since I’m an all-around mediocre blogger! :P
    Seriously, though, when humor is used correctly, it shows creativity, easygoingness, cleverness, and maturity.
    Being funny isn’t as easy as it looks, however, and I think that scares people away from using it in a professional context. As with most other skills, though, all it takes to get good at it is practice!

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  • http://www.katefosson.com Kate Fosson

    Awesome post. Thanks for the unique topic… I’ll definitely be thinking of ways to incorprate humor in my sites!

  • http://www.madebypaceaux.com Paceaux

    The problem with humor is that it’s cultural. Action, excitement, and sex appeal are much more universal than humor, which demands an excellent command of the native language, context, and culture. Even with command of the language and creativity, comedy still varies from one person to the next. It’s hard for your humor to be interpreted accurately, unless you’re drawing pictures à la TheOatmeal.

    Even though I’m the funny guy in my corporate job, I’m painfully careful about what goes on the web. The last thing I need is my boss or a future employer to not get the joke. With such a high risk of humor being misunderstood, I can see how most designers don’t risk it.

    Mathew Innman is self-employed and he isn’t looking for design work. There’s no risk for him when he tries humor, outside of a few angry emails. (e.g. How to Name an Abortion Clinic).

    Until the day that I get a job at Woot.com, I’m not going to be funny on the web, either. Not worth my job.

  • lucinasicko

    could not agree more! most webs i see are more like an e-business card rather than anything else and therefore utterly forgettable. great article!

  • http://www.designshack.co.uk Joshua Johnson

    Paceaux, great points! Though I agree that humor is definitely cultural, I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary for a given site to particularly target a given culture. For instance, this site is written in English, sure other cultures might not understand it but we have a target audience of English speakers and we’re targeting them exclusively.

    You’re definitely right though about the dangers of being misunderstood. It’s a very valid point and should definitely be considered.

  • http://ialreadydontlikeyou.tumblr.com Alex Pierce

    This is certainly true. One of my biggest turnoffs in this field is seeing a fellow designer taking themselves waaaaay too serious. Lighten up, you won’t lose business if you grab a chuckle or two.

  • http://www.copestylin.com Marc

    Great post! I agree 100% with your thoughts. People like to smile, and often surf the net to escape and do so.
    When I created my online portfolio, I endeavoured to make something witty on every page. The best page ended up being my feedback page. I turned it into a ‘Give Me a High-5′ option. Not only do I receive responses nearly everyday, people have passed the link onto others just to fill out the form and see the response. In turn, people would then browse my portfolio. It can be see at:

    http://copestylin.com/high-5.html

    It convinced me that people really like (and participate) in things that make them smile. I used this basis for the rest of the site, and other projects as well.

  • http://www.money-now.webs.com jimmy money now

    I realy love this humour and seeing it in websites is more great and it is definitely something I should consider adding to my own sites. Unfortunately I think it would be difficult to persuade all my clients that this is something they should add to all their own websites.

  • http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xdhef9_onlinedating_lifestyle online dating video

    Yes humor adds a lot of value to an advertisement.

  • http://www.elementary-agency.com/ London Marketing Agency

    Very funny business to do really it’s interesting

  • http://www.davidashforth.com David Ashforth

    Where can I find someone to make me a funny one page website for a project i’m working on….

    Please help!

  • http://marriageboutique.com Marriage Boutique

    I loved this! It made me laugh, we need more of this online.

  • http://www.pdvictor.com Peter Drinnan

    I found that it wasn’t until I stared taking myself less seriously that my site became stickier. My site still sucks but at least it has some personality now.

    Humor is tricky but a little can go a long way in terms of making a company human.

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