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Laughter Is the Best Marketing
Laughter Is the Best Marketing

Embrace humor to boost your institution’s brand

By Tracy Playle

Stephen Webster

Wanted: Strong, well-endowed institution with solid reputation. Good sense of humor a MUST. Spirited, intelligent, curious student ready to commit to multiyear relationship in hopes of creating loyal and supportive lifelong partnership. Show me you get me + make me laugh = winning combination to my head and heart.

We are attracted to people, ideas, and things that make us laugh. A good sense of humor often tops the list of qualities people look for in a potential mate, or just a date. In fact, a recent study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology linked a strong sense of humor in the male partner with more frequent orgasms for the female partner. That topic is better suited to an issue of Cosmopolitan than CURRENTS, though, so I'll move on. But if colleges and universities such as Harvard, the Massachu­setts Institute of Technology, Notre Dame, and William & Mary consider sense of humor when admitting applicants, shouldn't higher education institutions make an effort to show theirs? After all, a good sense of humor is typically viewed as a sign of intelligence.

Because advancement professionals are in the business of attracting people to their organizations, they should consider using humor as a communications and marketing tactic. That's why the world's biggest brands deploy it for the most expensive advertising time in the world—Super Bowl commercials. From Jedi children to Doritos time machines, humor is a proven winner. But many educational institutions have been reluctant to embrace it. I get it. Education is a serious business. It changes the world. It inspires progress. So tactics intended to elicit ROFL reactions don't seem to align with advancing the human race and its understanding of the world. Or do they? To attract people who will change the world, institutions need to compete with cat memes for their attention.

Debunk the bunk

In my years of developing digital content strategies for institutions, I typically hear three arguments for why institutions shouldn't use humor in their communications and marketing messages.

"We're a very traditional organization, and that's why people like us. Being funny isn't something we do." I hear this not only from professionals at elite universities with tradition-filled histories but also from representatives of younger institutions governed by leaders who want to project grand aspirations. Either way, their belief is that tradition and humor don't—or shouldn't—intersect, despite much evidence to the contrary.

Infusing gravitas with a dash of comedy can put a smile on constituents' faces and earn great media coverage. On April Fools' Day 2010, Johns Hopkins University in Maryland announced that it was "bowing to the inevitable and officially changing its name to ‘John Hopkins,'" citing suspicion that the extra "s" began as a typo. Photos accompanying the press release showed workers removing the extra letter from campus signs. Bookstores were said to be distributing "vats of Wite-Out" so that faculty members could quickly update their business cards.

"We tried being funny once, but it didn't work." By that logic, people wouldn't learn to walk, tie their shoes, or ride a bike. For many institutions, being funny means creating something that the senior leadership team finds mildly amusing and thus is happy to approve-but only after several committee reviews and revisions sap it of all humor and creativity. The reality: The project didn't work because it wasn't funny in the first place.

"We have an international community, and we don't want to offend anyone from other cultures." This argument applies to most organizations with which I work. While I can't accept it as a reason to dismiss humor altogether, it presents a legitimate challenge. Humor can be offensive; it doesn't always translate well or transcend cultures. The deadly attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January is extreme evidence of this. But humor can also break down barriers and bring people together by reminding them that we're all members of the human family. As Mark Twain said: "The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter." Finding common ground is important. Those who are interested in our universities are likely already attracted to their culture, so take advantage of shared reference points. One reason the Johns Hopkins prank worked so well is that its audiences (even those who didn't like the joke) could relate to the confusion outsiders have about that extra "s."

The necessity of discomfort

If we've learned anything from The Three Stooges or The Office—and who among us hasn't?—it's that discomfort makes us laugh. The three main theories that seek to explain why we find things funny are rooted in some type of discomfort. They include:

  • The incongruity theory, which requires the juxtaposition of two contrasting elements that come together in an unexpected way. Viewers of the 2010 video President's Day at Macalester College follow the leader of the Minnesota institution through his day as he performs surprising tasks such as cleaning the campus, reciting key college messages after inhaling helium from a balloon, dressing up as the college mascot, and wearing a sandwich board to promote giving.
  • The relief theory, which suggests that one reason we laugh is to release nervous energy. If a comedian's humor has challenged us or made us feel uncomfortable, we laugh to alleviate the pent-up anxiety. Dirty jokes (and all things Freudian) are frequently cited examples, but comedian Sid Caesar offers another take: "If you have no tragedy, you have no comedy. Crying and laughing are the same emotion. If you laugh too hard, you cry. And vice versa."
    It's tough, for instance, when students find out that no institution accepted them. In 2011, the U.K.'s University of Lincoln turned this circumstance into an opportunity to introduce students rejected from other institutions to their university as an intriguing alternative option. Lincoln's wacky animated video offered a new plan, encouraging students to consider a place where they could study fields such as media production, computer science, and psychology, or, ahem, witchcraft, dog repair, and reverse psychology.
  • The superiority theory, which posits an uncomfortable but recognizable viewpoint—that we laugh at people, things, or ideas because we deem ourselves to be superior. Think of how we laugh at Homer Simpson or slapstick comedy. The flip side of this is so-called geek humor—sharing jokes that require a certain level of intelligence to be understood: Did you hear oxygen and potassium went on a date? It went OK.
    In 2010, University of Warwick economist Peter Backus published the four-page paper "Why I don't have a girlfriend: An application of the Drake Equation to love in the UK" on the economics department's website. Intended as a joke, the paper takes a mathematical formula designed to estimate the likelihood of highly evolved civilizations in our galaxy and applies it to determining the probability of the author finding a girlfriend. Laughing at Backus's paper makes us feel good about ourselves because we feel intelligent enough to comprehend it. (And if you already have a mate, you may feel superior for another reason.)

So discomfort seems to be at the heart of understanding humor (although there are some exceptions). For something to be funny, it must challenge us, make us uncomfortable, or make us feel superior.

What Shakespeare can teach us about humor

To change the world, people need to accept difficult truths. Comedy is a powerful mechanism for helping this process along—it gives people permission to accept the ways in which they are being challenged by laughing at them. This is why comedians are often hailed as visionaries. George Carlin believed his role was to help people cross that line: "I try to come in through the side door, the side window, to come in from a direction they're not expecting, to see something in a different way. That's the job that I give myself. So, how can I talk about something eminently familiar to them, on my terms, in a new way, that engages their imagination?"

If we hop back to medieval Europe, we can see that the court jester's role wasn't simply to entertain the most powerful person in the country but also to challenge him. The jester used humor to question authority and shape leaders' decisions. Consider Shakespeare's depiction of the fool in King Lear:

I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are.

They'll have me whipp'd for speaking true;

thou'lt have me whipp'd for lying; and

sometimes I am whipp'd for holding my peace.

I had rather be any kind o' thing than a fool!

Educators are in the business of changing the world, challenging ideas, and empowering people to think differently, which makes humor a natural fit for our institutional environments. The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper is the modern-day embodiment of the medieval jester, and I'd bet it's no coincidence that he's an academic.

It pays to make people laugh

"Humor can help brands cut through a cluttered marketplace," according to a May 2014 Washington Post column by humor researcher Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. As director of the institution's Humor Research Lab, McGraw is a proponent of another theory of humor: benign violation. McGraw's hypothesis incorporates existing humor theories and posits that humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening but simultaneously appears acceptable or safe. The humor of Jerry Seinfeld, who highlights—and heightens—the absurdities of everyday situations, offers one example.

"A well-executed joke grabs attention, sticks in customers' memories better than most ad campaigns could, and injects brands into water cooler conversation," McGraw writes. "It also has the benefit of making companies seem more human."

Let's look at how comedy can raise awareness of our institutions, improve how people perceive them, and persuade audiences to take action. Some good applications for using humor in educational advancement include:

  • Recruitment initiatives. While the University of Lincoln went the outlandish route, Yale University's Glee-like 2010 admissions video That's Why I Chose Yale offers a more benign yet still effective example. The project, a campy song-and-dance production, works because it's an unexpected entry from the Ivy League institution. A particular favorite of mine is the daring and honest crowdsourced website "Why the Fuck Should I Choose Oberlin?"
  • Community engagement. The recent trend of creating BuzzFeed listicles resonates with alumni and students. Institutions such as The University of Manchester ("32 Things Every Manchester Student Knows to Be True"), the University of Exeter ("36 Things Everyone Who Went to Exeter University Will Remember"), and Keele University ("36 Things Everyone Who Studied at Keele University Will Understand") have seen success with this tactic, which highlights the ties that bind campus communities together.
  • Customer service communications. Injecting a little humor into one-on-one replies on Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram is a helpful tactic. This approach also lets you target your humor more appropriately instead of trying to appeal to the masses. "The occasional funny tweet or disarming quip made by a service agent reminds customers that there is a real person on the other end of the line," according to McGraw. "These interactions diffuse tensions and build brand-customer camaraderie, opening the door for successful sales and service." The University of Michigan's admissions Tumblr, for example, offers information with a side of humor, taking applicants' questions seriously while lightening the mood with comical GIFs.
  • Brand awareness campaigns. A classic example is Stanford University's 2007 "Hail Stanford, Hail" TV commercials. My favorite of the three juxtaposes video of a cat chasing a laser pointer dot with a serious script about the California institution's innovations in laser technology.
Break through humor barriers

I typically see three things that prevent institutions from unleashing their creativity and humor in their communications and marketing efforts: organizational culture, perceptions (or misperceptions) of how their audiences expect institutions to behave, and the approval process. These are large and complex issues, but here are some ways to chip away at obstacles and begin experimenting with using humor.

Do your research. Know your audience. Back to Carlin: "Comedy is filled with surprise, so when I cross a line ... I like to find out where the line might be and then cross it deliberately, and then make the audience happy about crossing the line with me." Carlin had to understand his audience, their sense of humor, and their perception of him. That formed the line he could then cross. The periodic audience research your institution should be conducting to keep its brand fresh and on point can help determine where that line exists for your institution.

Fool them. Once a year we are given a day when it's socially acceptable to be a mass-scale prankster. April Fools' Day offers a safe opportunity to play with humor. Last year, Ireland's Cork Institute of Technology introduced a black-and-white version of its student website as a cost-saving measure. Students who wanted to view the site in color would have to pay for the privilege, leading some to try purchasing CIT's color viewing license. Meanwhile, Canada's Simon Fraser University launched its new Semester in Space program.

Deflect. You don't have to be the source of humor. "Why the Fuck Should I Choose Oberlin?" is a great example. Since a pair of alumni created the website, Oberlin could officially distance itself from the project but still bask in the glowing—and funny—responses it receives. Another option is to find and share the funny things students and alumni say on social media about life at your institution.

Streamline the approval process. Nothing kills funny faster than a committee. The more people you involve the more likely you commit humor homicide. Start with gentle under-the-radar humor such as cheeky replies on Twitter (that nobody has to approve) to show that your audiences are receptive and build from there. On Twitter, Princeton University took the high road with a fun and relatable response ("Always show your work, right?") when Harvard quickly answered a mathematical puzzle from a Princeton professor.

Don't try to be funny. Comics have a flair for telling engaging stories and adopting a pace and structure that hold people's attention. Watch and learn from their techniques. Note the pauses that stand-up comedians take, consider how they connect, divert from, and then loop back on points they've made. You don't have to be funny to benefit from those valuable communications lessons.

As Oscar-winning actor Peter Ustinov said: "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." Higher education institutions have the serious part down. It's time to work on the other part.

About the Author Tracy Playle Tracy Playle

Tracy Playle is the director and head of strategy at Pickle Jar Communications, a communications and marketing consultancy in Newcastle, U.K.




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