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William Shakespeare used puns. In fact, he might have invented them. In a headline, a pun can be effective in the same way a double entendre can be, but with similar risks.

A double entendre, which is very common in advertising, runs two great risks.

First, there is the risk that the reader won’t get it. In which case, the headline falls flat. Of course, you can always appeal to the two percent rule (that a very low percentage of your readers will get the joke, feel smart, and elevate your hipness quotient while deepening your brand’s relationship with those few people). But don’t bet the farm on two percent of your readers moving the needle in any meaningful way.

Second, and probably greater, is the risk that a double entendre will offend people. Now, if your brand is an edgy brand, then it is important to exclude as well as include. But in general, most brands do not benefit by the notion that they are vulgar, giggling adolescents—or worse yet, that their advertising has been turned over to vulgar, giggling adolescents. Other than the Bevis and Butthead brand, who really benefits from women (52 percent of the population), minorities (soon to be 51 percent of the population), or belief groups (maybe 100 percent of the population) rolling their eyes, turning on their heels, and conceptually walking away shaking their heads at you?

An example of a double meaning that worked pretty well (from my misspent advertising youth) is “Fantastic Finishes.” Alcoa wanted to communicate to a male-dominated audience that aluminum had superior qualities to other metals, and made for a superior “finish” on all sorts of items (rust proof, sun proof, strong…). They launched a campaign of sixty-second television commercials that ran at the two-minute warning of NFL games (last thing before the big finish), in which they featured fantastic finishes from great NFL games in history. The double meaning of “fantastic finishes” worked, because both meanings applied to the product, the audience, and the media placement.

Now, for puns its a little different. Of course, some puns are obscure, so there is a small risk that some people won’t get something like, “so you thought you’d poulet fast one on me.” But mostly, people get puns. They just wish they hadn’t.

Second, there is the risk of people thinking they’re (you’re) stupid. Sorry to offend, but everyone knows that a pun is the lowest form of humor. Not too low for Shakespeare or Stephen King, but still low hanging fruit in the whole family tree of clever turns. Of course, the worst is what my old mentor, Bill Gruber, used to call “the groaning pun.” That’s a pun in which you do an arbitrary play on words without any thought for what the bigger picture communication is about.

So, if you use “we thought we’d poulet fast one on you,” the product sell has to include (in the selling strategy itself) a bilingual French-English component, a poultry component, and an element of trickery (as in, “pull a fast one”). So, if you are selling fine continental cuisine, using a clever “mock chicken” instead of real chicken. And, say, this mock chicken is made of soy (so it’s vegan) and has been shown to be superior in nutrition and taste to real chicken…or, perhaps, your fine cuisine cleverly substitutes chicken leg and thigh filets for duck breast…then you can feature a French chef in a tall hat saying, “we thought we poulet fast one on you.”

But, if you are selling package delivery, and the key feature is speed, and you have Jeff Gordon drive up at 180 mph in his NASCAR, roll down the window, hold a rubber chicken out, and say, “thought we’d poulet fast one on you…” get ready for the groan.

So, like double entendre, a pun can be useful to the advertising writer. But in the hands of amateurs, it can be dangerous.

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