Funny Business

A generation of comedians is changing the ad world with humor (and smarts, too)

Wrigley just couldn’t get on board with the necrophilia. 

“I wanted to do this sketch where this guy is at the morgue, and he basically bribes the attendant to let him have an extra five minutes with his dead spouse,” says Will Arnett. The actor, who with his Arrested Development co-star, Jason Bateman, co-founded DumbDumb, a shop that creates and writes digital shorts for brands, is talking about brainstorming for Wrigley-owned Orbit. “He pulls her body out of the sack, and then somehow the Orbit gum cleans up that situation and makes everything OK. Our friends at Wrigley were like, ‘I don’t know if you can wipe that slate clean with a stick of gum.’”

The idea they liked, “Prom Date,” with its earnest dad (Bateman) and pissed-off teen (Aubrey Plaza), has gone viral—it’s posted on YouTube and several other sites—and DumbDumb has since picked up work from Old Navy, Denny’s, BlackBerry, and a video gamer it will not yet name. The firm is backed by Electus, a partnership between Ben Silverman and IAC, which placed a wager: if branded content is the future of ads, then comedians and comic actors should be making it.

“I’m happy to cheerlead for advertisers as well as storytellers,” says Silverman. “The theme of the day is the audience and the consumer; [they] decide whether or not they’re engaging in the content—and can feel the halo around a brand connected to that content.”

But is the wager sound? The most-watched form of online video is the comedic kind, according to Pew Research Center, and the largest swath of Internet users watching them are 18-29. This is a sweet spot for marketers that, in general, are interested in reaching those elusive 18-34 males—men, by the way, who tend to like slapstick and other goofy bits of comedy. And funny videos do have the best chance of going viral, the Holy Grail for brands (unless you’re Domino’s, say, and an employee videos a cohort blowing snot onto a pizza). Comedy itself is viral; think of the taboo pleasure of passing along a dirty joke.

“Unless you’re making the ASPCA commercial with the sad puppies and the Sarah McLachlan music,” says Arnett, “it’s very difficult to get people to consume through dramatic advertising.”

“You can make someone laugh quicker than you can push them to emotion,” adds Bateman. “There’s a kind of implied agreement that if you’re gonna give it to me, you better give it to me fast.”

The major comedic players, the websites CollegeHumor—whose parent company is IAC—and Funny or Die, have departments devoted to producing such branded content. Other players have been shilling for brands as well, including The Lonely Island and comedic powerhouses with street cred like Zach Galifianakis and Vice magazine co-founder—and hipster, dude-bro comic—Gavin McInnes.

“Unlike anonymous ad creatives, who have no public equity whatsoever, successful comedic talent does,” says Ted D’Cruz-Young, managing partner at Ideocracy. (D’Cruz-Young created branded content for vitaminwater starring Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines, which the company didn’t end up buying.) “That they share their equity with brands puts them in a unique creative position where they get latitude, where someone from Crispin Porter wouldn’t, no matter how famous he [or she] is in the ad industry.”

Which is one reason this talent is sought out. “More and more brands started coming to us,” says Patrick Starzan, vice president of marketing at Funny or Die, which was co-founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and Chris Henchy. (In May the site had approximately 5.2 million unique visitors, per comScore.) “We make about 20 to 30 videos a month, and branded videos became an extension of this.”

Both Funny or Die and CollegeHumor (which had approximately 4 million unique visitors in May, per comScore) have grown to accommodate the work. Their in-house creative and ad sales departments respond to brand RFPs and execute campaigns directly with clients or through ad and PR agencies. (Funny or Die clients have included Xbox, Pepsi, Hasbro, and Budweiser; CollegeHumor’s Trojan, Bacardi, and Axe.) Unlike traditional agencies, these units do not have creative and account teams dedicated to particular brands, nor do they have research departments that perform follow-up. They learn about the brands, then spitball comedy sketches.

“Comics write short films all day,” says Seth Herzog, a veteran of the New York alternative comedy scene and a writer on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. “Advertisers are realizing, ‘Oh, there [are] eyes on these funny ideas; let’s see if we can attach Yodels to them.’”

Vans sneakers went this route, approaching Rooster, where McInnes is creative director, to do some episodes for its “Vans Presents Off the Wall TV.” In one seven-minute Vans clip, McInnes himself demonstrates techniques to relieve oneself on the street without detection. At the end, he piddles on his own Vans sneakers. The episode has gone viral, surpassing 1 million views on YouTube alone.

So yes, the fit between brand and comedian is sometimes perfect. For starters, a comedian’s job is to create material that is imitated and repeated. (Prior to memes, there were mimes.) Long before your nephew’s Halloween costume involved a dick in the box, and long before broadband, people were quoting Homer Simpson, doing their own Wild and Crazy Guy, and zinging like Henny Youngman.

Comedians are also schooled in the Web; they’ve been using the platform to advertise themselves and hone their work since Friendster. And comedians are good at targeting. They tailor their stand-up acts when pitching, say, to showrunners, and have learned to read a room. “If you’re in New York City, you’re at a cool comedy show . . . that audience is not going to want to hear your joke about the debt ceiling,” says Herzog. “They’re going to want to hear about the vagrant that shat on you.”

It’s easy to understand why marketers want comedians to do ads, but, on the surface, less clear why comedians are saying yes. Aren’t they worried they’ll lose some cred? Comments for branded content on CollegeHumor can get pretty rough. Like this one, written by “Bggiger”: “I seriously just watched a fuckin commercial. Everybody was ok with that?”

No, not everybody was, at least according to some of the other comments. But CollegeHumor co-founder Ricky Van Veen says, “Everyone knows it’s harder on any platform to get people to like branded over non-branded content. . . . The ratio of sponsored vs. non-sponsored content is something we keep an eye on—nobody’s going to a site that’s all ads.”

Matt McCarthy, a New York stand-up who has appeared in numerous commercials—and participated in several branded-content competitions—says if ads annoy viewers, the ads “aren’t done very well. . . . I’ve never heard anyone make that complaint about Seinfeld, and that show was rife with probably the cleverest branded content in mainstream media. You think of it as being ‘The Junior Mint’ episode; you don’t think of it as being a Junior Mint commercial.”

As for the comedians themselves, the reasons vary. Bateman, for instance, whose career had hit a wall until Arrested Development, appears to have a head for business, and a desire to diversify his own brand. “I’ve always wanted to make commercials,” he says, “but I wasn’t really sure if I had the skill set.”

For others, it can be the jump start for stalled careers. When Illeana Douglas began “Easy to Assemble,” her Ikea-branded Web series—which even takes place in an Ikea—in 2008, she couldn’t get her work produced. “The independent film market was just falling apart, so I started looking for someone else to fund my art,” she says. Just as she was giving up, Ikea called. The premise of “Easy to Assemble”: Douglas wants out from the acting rat race, so she gets a job at an Ikea.

The series—which also stars Bateman’s sister, Justine, and has a revolving list of celebrities, only some of whom are out of work—just shot its fourth “season,” and has legions of fans. “It has given me a solid platform to sit with studio executives and say, ‘I’ve got 10 million views and two Webby Awards, and we were on the front page of Variety,’” says Douglas. “‘Now what do you think?’”

“To make money in comedy before this, you had to develop a sitcom,” adds Herzog, “or you toured on the road. Now, all of a sudden . . . it’s like we found a pool of money in the middle of the desert.”

And, just like many ad people, these creatives say they’re not selling out—they’re setting the agenda. “The products we do are fun [and] fit our style,” says Funny or Die’s McKay, the comedy screenwriter and performer. “It’s not like we’re doing Mutual of Omaha—although that could be pretty funny.”

“The great thing is there are no rules, you make your own rules,” adds Arnett.

So, if Galifianakis wants to have a bizarro talk show on Funny or Die, which he does (“Between Two Ferns”), and Speed Stick wants to sponsor it, he’ll just have the deodorant make an intrusive, Dada-like appearance in each program, turning the product break—and not the product—into a pretty good joke. (In 2008, Galifianakis created a series of digital shorts with comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim for Absolut Vodka.)

For others, branded content can also be a motivator—and not just because they’re getting paid. “There’s a tremendous amount of instances where you’ll be talking to a friend, and you’ll say, ‘Oh, that would be a really funny video if we went and shot that,’” says Arnett. “But then you’re like, ‘What am I going to do? Go get a camera? I’m going to fucking write this sketch? And then I have to get some people to come do it with me? Ugh. Why bother?’ You end up not doing it. So we thought this would be a great opportunity to have the mechanism in place to take advantage of stuff we wanted to do, and then find a brand who would underwrite that. But the original impetus grew out of the desire to just fuck around.”

And let’s be honest here: “selling out,” if that means fame and money, is the goal of any comedian. Ferrell went from SNL in the late ’90s to, yes, many Hollywood hits, but also Kicking & Screaming and Bewitched. And in his first Wayne’s World movie, Mike Meyers, when standing behind a perfectly framed Pizza Hut box, held up a slice to his mouth and said, “I will not bow to any sponsor.”

Amos ’n’ Andy hawked Pepsodent on the radio in the ’30s, Michael J. Fox sold Pepsi on TV in the ’80s, Sex and the City was a veritable orgy of product placement in the ’90s and 2000. “Actors go where the eyes and the money are, and right now they’re on digital videos on the Web. As Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg said after the president of MTV called him a comedian for the digital age, “The technology existed. We got lucky.”

So assuming that comics hold the keys to the new kingdom, why aren’t the big ad firms scouring comedy clubs and YouTube, and putting these people under contract? For one thing, traditional TV advertising is alive and well. This year’s upfronts just saw some $9 billion in ad commitments for the five major networks—a number just shy of the all-time high of $9.5 billion in 2004.

And then there’s that thing about civilian life: you have to show up. Comedians work best when left alone (late nights on stage mean late mornings in bed); if they wanted to have corporate bosses, they would have gone into advertising. Agencies are certainly aware of this. “We want to keep making funny stuff, and wouldn’t mind making a little money at it,” says Bateman. “But it is just a side job.”

Fredrik Carlstrom, CEO and executive creative director of Great Works—which worked with Galifianakis on the Absolut Vodka content—says not all comedic-branded creative is created equal. “Funny or Die doesn’t give a shit about how many cars Ford sells, or how many bottles of liquor are sold by spirit brands that advertise on their site. It’s the role of advertising agencies . . . to sit at the table and look at consumer insights and determine what content is relevant for a brand to sell stuff.”

There’s also the consideration that brands will only let comedians go so far. For clients “there are risks associated with freeing the brief,” says D’Cruz-Young. “You’ll get in a situation with fantastic content and fantastic comedic talent . . . and some [marketer] will ask, ‘How does this support my brand promise?’ A creative who does comedy will think, ‘Who gives a fuck about your brand promise?’ It flags the disconnect and self-importance that brands have. They think consumers buy for certain reasons, and they don’t.”

Regardless, it might make sense to wait for better ways to measure what, exactly, branded-content videos do for brands. True, what’s available can be compelling. YouGov BrandIndex reported that Denny’s—wanting to jolt its stodgy image—had an impression-score spike from 6.2 to 25.4 in that demo after DumbDumb’s “Always Open” Web series for the chain began in March. (Overseen by Denny’s agency, Gotham, it features comedian David Koechner interviewing funny types, like Sarah Silverman, at a Denny’s in Hollywood.) But while spending on branded content as a share of total marketing has doubled in the last decade, according to eMarketer, and the impressions these videos create make for an obvious increase in brand awareness, no one can conclude whether the content is actually making any money for these businesses.

“We haven’t done research on the actual dollars, but we do know that it can drive engagement if it’s done well,” says Brigette Lytle, head of innovation at market researchers Hall & Partners. The company believes that sharing such content creates brand advocates, even if the watchers are simply laughing. She adds, however, that “content that comes across as ad-sales-y can have very negative connotations.”

While the bottom line matters for obvious reasons to this new breed of creative, they ultimately care most about the product—their product. Which is why they don’t have, say, a strong sense of corporate responsibility.

Bateman, for instance, says he doesn’t have a problem with making ads for a food chain responsible for fattening Americans and clogging veins. “People are going to make their own decisions about what they eat,” he says. “If you eat bacon every single day, you’re gonna die. I can’t help an idiot from making idiotic choices.”

Funny. That sounds like an adman.

—With additional reporting by Richard Linnett.