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Jane Austin in Cannes: marketing morphs into (new-style) funny old game

After years spent in a humourless wilderness, advertisers are re-embracing comedy. Why did it take them so long, one might wonder? Wasn’t it David Ogilvy who said if want to get your wife’s attention, show her a funny cat video. Possibly not. But humour is a marketing 101 nonetheless.

While it’s a bit of a concern that comedy is fast becoming a buzzword at Cannes this week, the focus on humour is a welcome reprieve from all the AI chat. Hopefully, it also marks an end to the insufferable pomposity that was a feature of brand campaigns during the pandemic years.

Comedy contenders at Cannes this year include CeraVe’s Super Bowl campaign starring comedy actor Michael Cerave; Lynx “Robbery & Funeral”; Knorr “Bouillon Bag” (the mini handbag that perfectly fits a single stock cube); and, my personal favourite, the Yorkshire Tea anthem “Pack Yer Bags”, with Skipton Alfie extolling the joys of getting “lightly caffeinated.”

So what’s the secret to making ‘em laugh? Saturday Night Live star Kenan Thompson told Cannes on Tuesday that the key to SNL’s enduring success is the diversity of its cast members, adding: “It’s just not about appearances, it allows the show to do comedy it never could before.”

Marian Brannelly, global director of awards at Cannes Lions, has said the new comedy category at the festival “exists to not exist in a couple of years.” So will all brands be trying to be funny in future? As marketing’s obsession with comedy grows, no doubt it won’t be long before it’s outsourced to AI.

Now, popular opinion would have it that comedy is beyond AI. As Rory Sutherland recently told the FT: “AI can produce jokes, but they aren’t yet very funny, which I think is evidence that there is still a missing human connection.”

I beg to differ. Read this parody headline: “Story of Woman Who Rescues Shelter Dog With Severely Matted Fur Will Inspire You to Open a New Tab and Visit Another Website.” This was written by code-davinci-002, an AI tool which predates ChatGPT.

I concede that when it comes to sparkling wit, an AI bot isn’t exactly your dream dinner guest. But if you can write an ad that makes me laugh and doesn’t patronise me for being over the age of 35, I don’t give a shit if you’re a robot.

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