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Funny Business

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

Will Arnett and Jason Bateman | Photo: Jeremy Goldberg

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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.

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