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:-) vs LOL

November 23, 2016

Article by Gordon Ray – Founding Partner and Executive Creative Director at M&C Saatchi Abel


There’s only one thing I enjoy more than having a laugh, and that’s making others laugh. So it’s probably a good thing then that I landed up as a copywriter in an advertising agency and not as an undertaker or an air traffic controller. What I love about our industry is that we have the power to make consumers feel things. We get to use our toolbox of tricks; words, pictures & music to elicit a range of different emotions. From goosebumps and lumps in the throat, to my personal favourite, the teary-eyed laugh. As creatives, we have an obligation to emotionally move our audience in some direction. If we don’t deliver our message while making them feel something, then we quite simply haven’t done our job, and we risk being like that annoying guest at a dinner table who constantly interrupts the conversation to say something no one really wants to hear.

In a recent interview on humour in advertising for Canadian TV, I was asked, ‘what makes South Africans laugh?’ At first I thought it quite a pointed question. Was the interviewer suggesting, for a second, that as South Africans there was something third world or second rate about our sense of humour? Was he suggesting we don’t find the universal greats like Seinfeld, South Park or Little Britain funny? I did a quick mental rewind through SA’s ‘best of’ reel – pausing momentarily at some of our country’s most iconic ads: Nando’s ‘last dictator’, which playfully ridiculed an ensemble cast of Africa’s most deplorable leaders. Vodacom’s ‘we’ve been having it’ ads, a hilarious take on government’s abuse of power. Doom’s ‘cockroach’ commercial which showed a house-proud black family pretending to tap dance in front of a priest, when actually they were trying to kill a rogue cockroach. Chicken Licken’s ‘Bunker’ ad, where a pre ‘94 family hides underground waiting for the revolution to pass, and then pops up 10 years later to discover the world is actually a much better place. And then, right at the end of my memory’s reel – Castrol’s brilliantly funny ‘Boet & Swaar’ characters. Two, then three typically local characters, who voiced our unspoken thoughts and exposed our nation’s suppressed prejudices.

What made these ads so memorable, so unforgettably funny, is that they weren’t afraid to show us the uncomfortable facets of our uniquely South African idiosyncrasies. I’ve always believed that most genuine laughs are often preceded by a mouth covering gasp. Those, ‘I can’t believe they went there’ laughs are generally the most heartfelt and enjoyable.

Humour that works, that’s remembered and shared generally pushes boundaries. It’s brave and takes people past their self-imposed lines of correctness, and gives them permission to laugh at taboos.

Trevor Noah does this superbly. He knows South Africans so well and he manages to reveal the ridiculousness behind our tightly-held prejudices. No one is safe from his laser-sharp spotlight, every colour and culture is explored. He’s spent his life observing us from every angle, he’s grown up on both sides of the colour spectrum, he gets our world, and that’s what gets us laughing. I would argue that the reason he hasn’t quite connected with the Americans, is that he doesn’t know them as well as he should. He is still the same brilliantly talented comedian we know and love, it’s just that he doesn’t know his new market – and it shows.

We recently produced a commercial for Hollard insurance, it challenged so many cultural conventions, and broke so many rules that had it been researched, it probably wouldn’t have been made. The ad shows a well-dressed black woman pulling up outside a clairvoyant’s caravan in her 4×4. The widow asks the mystic to summon the spirit of her departed husband. When she feels confident that he is in the room, she removes her dark glasses, and instead of telling him how much she loves and misses him, she begins to berate him for leaving them uninsured, and destitute. It works, because it’s unexpected, and in a traditionally patriarchal society, where women only speak well of the dead, it stood out. It was spoofed by ZA news, and importantly made the point about the product: Insure your loved ones with Hollard and ensure they love you when you’re gone.

There’s a simple, but profound truth that says, ‘If your focus is solely on your product, it’s easy to miss your audience. But when your focus is on your audience, you’re more likely to connect with them.’

As a kid, I was known for imitating people. I would watch people for hours. I would study their accents, their facial expressions and their tiniest quirks. When I eventually impersonated them publicly, rather than getting a clout, surprisingly, I was rewarded with laughs and encouragement. Today, at the agency I insist on the same. Observe your market keenly. Watch them. Watch what they watch. Try and see beyond the stereotypes that everyone knows, and find those behavioural gems in the madness of everyday life.

There’s so much funny out there in our country. It’s why we love it here and why I wouldn’t want to be in advertising anywhere else. We just need to go out and find it and then be brave enough to make it.

Recently, a young creative reminded me just how important it is to judge creative work with your gut, and not your head. He presented a script to me, I smiled and said, ‘cool, that’s funny’. ‘Well obviously not,’ he said, ‘If it was funny, you would have laughed’

How true. Less J, more LOL.


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