Funny Business

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

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.