Can Direct Mail Be Funny? If So, Should It Be!?

A bowling ball smashing a printer — that’s the first thing I thought of a couple of months ago when Mazarine Treyz, proprietor of Wild Woman Fundraising, asked me if direct mail could be funny. The trouble is, I couldn’t think of any other examples besides a postcard for AMF Bowling Centers.

A bowling ball smashing a printer — that’s the first thing I thought of a couple of months ago when Mazarine Treyz, proprietor of Wild Woman Fundraising, asked me if direct mail could be funny. The trouble is, I couldn’t think of any other examples besides a postcard for AMF Bowling Centers.

In “2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success,” the late Milt Pierce warned “Avoid humor at all costs,” which seems to be standard industry advice. After scouring our Who’s Mailing What! files (the world’s largest collection of direct mail and email), I was hard-pressed to find more than a few mailings that used humor in some way. But many of those that did use humor helped to illustrate how it can be done successfully.

First, let’s acknowledge that humor is incredibly subjective. People laugh at different things based on their age, nationality and many other factors. As with everything else in direct mail, knowing your intended audience is absolutely essential. You do not want your humorous images and copy to fall on deaf ears, or even worse, offend your prospects.

For example, the Al Franken for Senate 2014 campaign, undoubtedly targeting die-hard progressive Democrats, led with this counterintuitive teaser on the front of its recent #10 outer: “Republicans agree: Al Franken is #1.” The letter inside, from the comedian-turned-Senator, explains “I’m one of their top targets in the upcoming elections.”

Senator Franken goes on to provide a humorous twist to his serious message, “I need people like you to stand with me by supporting my 2014 U.S. Senate re-election campaign. And just to be clear, by ‘stand with,’ and ‘supporting,’ I mean ‘give money to.'”

You’ll want your humor to be immediate, as well as stand out against the rest of the mail it’s competing with for the attention of the customer. Photographs and graphics are especially good at this task. At the same time, however, they shouldn’t be so interruptive and distracting that they work against your brand’s identity by being disrespectful, demeaning or frivolous.

The intent should be to help the customer focus on how your product or service will help satisfy their needs or desires or to solve a problem. Take that AMF postcard. The front of it shows a bowling ball being dropped onto a balky printer, with the tagline “Today, Rhonda fixed the %&*$#! PAPER JAM once and for all.” It’s a frustration that most of the target market — such as office assistants — have probably felt. The solution to that feeling — to “Get unstuck, not unhinged” — is offered on the reverse side: a special group rate for a bowling event.

A large postcard mailed by Storage Deluxe, a chain of self-storage facilities, makes a pitch to consumers with space issues by a showing a woman struggling, in an extreme way, to put on a pair of jeans. The caption — “Space getting too tight?” — completes the metaphor for a troublesome situation (lack of storage, too much stuff) a customer may be facing. In this case, a perfectly suited answer is offered: storage units starting at a low monthly price.

Humorous visual association also works for three characters primarily known for the popular TV ads for three big insurers: GEICO (the Gecko), The Progressive (Flo), and Farmers Insurance Group (Professor Burke). All of them have made appearances on these companies’ direct mail, and again, not in an overwhelming fashion that distracts from the key selling point of the mailer.

Appeals to the darker side — emotions like anger, fear, greed, guilt — have been proven to work in direct mail. And while humor is a difficult concept, it can be a more positive way to connect with a prospect, and turn him or her into a happy customer.

Paul Bobnak is the director of research at Who’s Mailing What!, which houses the most complete, searchable (and fully online) library of direct mail and mail in the world. To learn more about joining, go to www.whosmailingwhat.com. To reach Paul, email him at pbobnak@napco.com.

5 thoughts on “Can Direct Mail Be Funny? If So, Should It Be!?”

  1. Pierce’s warning still has some validity even in today’s marketplace. Beyond the fact that humor is highly subjective and variable to different demographics — I marvel at how often my 16 year-old stepdaughter successfully laugh at the same things, perhaps a testament that as a creative I am still in touch with enough of my inner child — there is also the matter of QUALITY. I have an in-law that can remain stone-faced when told a joke, and very earnestly tells the bemused speaker, "I got it. I just didn’t find it funny."

    SImply put, the humor better be GOOD. Really good. We have to remember that people don’t WANT to read our messages and will to varying degrees work to avoid them. So if we want to entertain AND convey a selling point, it better be worth their time.

    The AMF postcard could be truly funny. It’s written well, but the layout is too busy and the visual is not as impactful as it could be. Imagine that bowling ball resting in a truly crushed printer. To anyone that has ever wrestled with one over the years, it would be a rush of endorphines to see it, even if the viewer doesn’t have the tangible experience of smashing it themselves. With a bit of white space around the headline (if it were not in so many pieces), the message is immediate and gratifying. And resonates with the target. Now I want to go bowling.

    An insurance comapny’s messaging that also warrants a mention is Allstate. The MAYHEM campaign features a memorable characer and edgy humor that sets it apart from the overexposed Flo. Regardless of how unlikely the scenario is used to create damage, the fact remains that the viewer is left thinking about all the things that can happen beyond their control. For that product, it’s a fit. for those outside the target, the humor is funny enough to make them slightly less likely to skip over it. Ask me at the end of the day, I’ll remember what company uses Mayhem, but I’ll have to pull out the smart phone to see who Flo is selling insurance for.

  2. Hi Meg-You make some great points. I have some other examples that I should post on our Facebook to get your take. I should mention that I didn’t talk about cartoons – that’s going to take a separate article.

    I’m hoping that the Mayhem character pops up in Allstate’s mail one of these days.

  3. Interestingly enough, I find the Mayhem guy just too creepy to be attractive. I find myself scrunching up my face in dismay when he shows up. So as for the ad "promoting" Allstate, I don’t know. (But I recognized the references to him right away, so that proves he’s memorable!)

  4. Paul,

    How to stand out from the crowd? Most direct mail is downright boring. Add a little light humor, avoid sensitive subjects, and yours will be the one they remember.

    Cheers,
    Marc

  5. Totally! I say bring the funny. Humor is subjective, but it’s very refreshing and will distinguish your campaign from the dreaded "junk mail".

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