Comedians create a lot of value for us, says Peter McGraw - and marketers can learn from the way they create that value.

The world is not in a happy place just now, as environmental, social and political problems pile on top of each other seemingly everywhere (although New Zealand might get a pass on that). It feels like it’s more important than ever to be able to raise a smile. If brands want to do that, who better to learn from than the experts? And if they can solve a few other problems along the way, so much the better.

Professor Peter McGraw directs The Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder and in his academic studies of humour he has come to understand a lot about the craft of comedy. At Ogilvy’s annual behavioural science event Nudgestock (a global virtual event last Friday), he suggested that our pressing problems can be solved with a bit of creativity and innovation using techniques that are second nature to comedians. He talked about a couple of these.

The reversal

This is the domain of one liners that upend expectations ( “When I read about the dangers of drinking, I stopped reading”) and the premise of many movies (e.g. Trading Places). Thinking in reverse can help overcome the status-quo bias, he explained.

“Not only does it overcome the status-quo bias, when you do overcome it, it puts you in a completely different space, it puts you far, far away from from everyone else. And that is because most people don’t think in reverse.”

A business example, he suggested, is the two Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs who, looking to compete with Apple and Samsung in the smartphone market, thought in reverse and came up with the dumb phone, with basic functions for people who want to be less connected.

Another way of thinking about reversal is turning bugs into features, he added - something comedians frequently do by starting a stand-up set with a little bit of self deprecation. “They use this as a way to create comedy, to create likeability, to create accessibility, to be able to critique themselves. And when they can critique themselves, then they can critique the world around them.”

Back in the mid-1980s, Buckley's cough syrup was languishing at the number nine position in the Canadian marketplace, and one of its problems was that the product tasted terrible. But rather than seek to change the taste with added sugar and flavourings, the brand instead launched a campaign based on the notion that it works because it tastes awful - medicine is not supposed to taste good! “They really leaned into this idea,” said McGraw, “with things like ‘not new’ and ‘not improved’, ‘our largest size is 200ml because any larger would be cruel’ and so on.” The result? Number one position in the marketplace (and subsequent acquisition by Novartis).


“Thinking of reverses is not not something that we naturally do and so sometimes we have to force ourselves to do it,” McGraw continued. That’s when a particular form of brainstorming that he calls shitstorming can be useful.

“Think about the challenges of a typical brainstorming task: you’re supposed to just have wild ideas and not hold back and not criticize ideas. And yet people always hold back. And they don’t give wild ideas. And frankly, they don’t really have much fun. And it’s hard to be creative if you’re not really in a positive mood and having a good time.”

And so to shitstorming: “your goal is to brainstorm truly terrible ideas, the worst possible ideas. Now this is great, first, because it’s a great warm up for any sort of innovation task and because it is a lot of fun to shitstorm; second, you can’t really be criticized.”

Chances are someone will actually come up with something that gets the response “That’s not such a bad idea” or even “That’s so crazy, it might actually work”.

Create a chasm

The life of a comedian is pretty straightforward – all they care about is the audience in front of them, and whether they're laughing or not. “And they know that in order to make that audience laugh, they have to risk making another audience not laugh.”

Comedians understand segmentation and targeting better than most brands

Humour is often about “benign violation”, McGraw explains: “things that are wrong, yet okay; things that are threatening, yet safe.” But what is benign violation for one person can be boring or offensive to another.

It’s “wholly determined by the perceptions and values and culture of the audience,” he says, “which suggests that targeting is paramount”. 

“Comedians actually understand segmentation and targeting better than most brands do. They recognize that in order to make people laugh, you have to understand what their values are, what their beliefs are, what their needs are.”

In brand terms, McGraw describes a world that wants hot tea or iced tea; “if you serve them warm tea in order to try to make everyone happy, you make no one happy.” That’s especially relevant now, since “the evidence is that these polarizing brands are often more stable, especially in tumultuous times”.