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Kiwi humour and how it influences consumer behaviour

girl laughing and holding hands over ears

Ever given a speech at a wedding and tried to weave in a joke? 

In a nutshell

  1. Humour is a powerful device used in marketing and advertising to draw in an audience so that they pay attention to your message. 
  2. Humour is one of our six Kiwi Codes that define us as New Zealanders. It is commonly used to diffuse the tension around serious subjects. 
  3. We can look to New Zealand's favourite TV ads to understand how humour is used effectively in advertising to entertain, grow the social acceptance of a brand or product and even influence behaviour change at a government agency level. 
  4. Using humour can be a risk for a brand to take, and there are some well known fails in this regard. To minimise that risk, TRA has developed several methodologies and tools to define a brand’s culturally "on-code" tone of voice and track sentiment around brands.

Then you’ll know that feeling of doubt that your joke might not connect with your audience.

Humour is risky, but it’s also a highly effective way of drawing an audience in so that they pay attention to the rest of your message.

“A smile is the shortest distance between two people” – Victor Borge.

Philosopher John Morreall believes that the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger – things that could have been a threat, but turned out not to be. For example, slapstick comedy that exaggerates accidents, violence and near misses that the audience know are not real dangers at all.

In Kiwi culture we use humour all the time. In fact, it’s one of our six dominant Kiwi Codes as a nation, commonly used not only to get attention, but also to diffuse the tension around serious subjects that can be difficult to talk about – like danger, death or social issues.

Take for example, David Lange’s nuclear-free speech or more recently, Air New Zealand’s reinvention of aircraft safety videos. Both used humour to draw in their audience and diffuse the tension around dead serious messages.

More often than not, a marketer’s message isn’t dead serious, but for customers, parting with hard earned money is still a serious decision to make. Good salespeople will often use humour to draw customers in, set them at ease and earn trust, priming them to buy.

Imagine a shopkeeper who welcomes you in a way that makes you smile (maybe even laugh out loud). How comfortable do you feel about browsing the store now that they’ve tickled your funny bone? Now imagine that you’ve made up your mind on what to buy, and they keep trying to crack jokes at the checkout. Often humour is a good way to draw people in, but once people are primed to buy, a brand can afford to be much more straight-up and rational… after the checkout there may be one more opportunity to send customers on their way with a smile on their face and the desire to return again soon.

Humour as a device to aid connection

So how might we pick the right time to hit the right notes with a tone of humour that will cut through and connect with a Kiwi audience? To start with, we can get some pointers from our tracking of New Zealand’s favourite television ads.

We began studying the Top 10 TVCs in partnership with ThinkTV to build our understanding of the kind of advertising that gets liked and remembered by New Zealanders.

When answering the simple open-ended question ‘What’s your favourite ad on TV at the moment?’, the first ad that comes to mind is the ad that has been remembered and recalled better than all the other ads people have been exposed to, and carries with it enough positive associations to be remembered as a favourite.

While dramatic ads like Lotto’s ‘Lost Ticket’, and heartwarming ads like Cadbury’s ‘Mum’ and BNZ’s ‘Ella’s Wish’ have performed well, all of these spots include a dash of humour at key moments in the story to ease the dramatic tension and keep audiences watching until the end.

Other strong performers such as Pak'nSave’s ‘Stickman’ and Mitre 10’s ‘Kong the Donkey’ utilise more overt humour to get noticed and stay memorable.

"Beyond entertaining people at an individual level, also keep in mind that observing friends and family laughing and smiling at these ads is a strong signal that other people like this brand – it’s popular, desirable and trustworthy."

Beyond entertaining people at an individual level, also keep in mind that observing friends and family laughing and smiling at these ads is a strong signal that other people like this brand – it’s popular, desirable and trustworthy.

What’s more, humour can be a social incentive too. Parroting the jokes from these ads to your friends and family is a means of getting yourself liked and remembered by other people. In doing so, the brand gets talked about in a positive way which is another strong signal that it is a popular and desirable choice.

The short term effect

We can conclude here that humour has a role to play in high-production TVCs designed for long-term brand building, but what about short-term sales activation?

One way to do it is to remind people of the humour in your brand at point of sale. Pak’nSave has brought Stickman into their mailers as well as their stores. Flagship stores even have the ‘Sticky Café’. All the way through Pak’nSave’s customer experience, Stickman is there to trigger positive memories of the funny brand ads, making people feel good when they shop there – an emotional incentive to shop there again.

Speights has leveraged the likeable characters from ‘The Dance’ TVC as cardboard cut-outs at point of sale. As unsophisticated and old-school as cardboard cut-outs may be, they serve as one more nudge to remind shoppers exactly which beer it was that made them smile at home in front of the TV.

We’ve also seen McDonalds feature among NZ’s favourite ads with short term sales promotions for the Big Mac with bacon, and launching the all-day breakfast menu. The two friends in these ads, with their funny, quirky dialogue have elevated a straight-forward product announcement to a memorable favourite ad.

Humour for social change

So, if humour works for commercial brands, what about for government messages?

NZTA has one of the largest advertising spends among government agencies with their ongoing push to reduce drink driving. Over the long term it’s interesting to note the shift they made from using fear tactics with the ‘Bloody Idiot’ campaign to using humour with the ‘Bloody Legend’ campaign.

Similarly, the Health Promotion Agency’s ‘Ease Up on the Drink’ campaign intentionally reflects the kind of humour exhibited among mates on a night out. This helped to make the “no more beersies for you” line one worth parroting, getting the alcohol moderation message shared among drinkers right in the moment of consumption.

Another noteworthy use of humour as a social incentive to get a safety message through to a skeptical audience was Water Safety NZ’s ‘Swim Reaper’ campaign. Who would have thought that (1) a government agency could use humour to warn about death by drowning, or (2) that a young male audience would go as far as getting a water safety ambassador tattooed on themselves? It happened.

Humour comes with its own risks

"With all these success stories, it remains true that using humour is a risk for a brand to take."

With all these success stories, it remains true that using humour is a risk for a brand to take. Some famous fails include the Air New Zealand rapping safety video that was swiftly scrapped and Burger King NZ’s Vietnamese-burger-eaten-with-chopsticks ad that offended people around the world.

The thing is, humour is a calculated risk worth taking. People know humour is risky, and in New Zealand culture, we admire those who make bold moves and get away with it (e.g. bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower or putting bike pedals on your sailing boat and winning the race).

In order to calculate that risk, TRA has developed several methodologies to define a brand tone of voice that will be on-code with cultural currents, appropriate to people's needs in the category and distinctive from competitors.

We are constantly monitoring global cultural currents as well as Kiwi Codes and recently we have begun tracking the performance of brands against those codes.

In our tracking so far, the brands that people associate most strongly with Kiwi humour are Pak'nSave, Air New Zealand and Whittakers. All three of these brands are taking a carefully calculated risk with the the tone and timing of the humour they use, and are reaping the benefits with strong performance against all other brand measures.

TRA’s tone of voice framework is designed to help brand managers decide when to use a brand’s humourous side, and with what intensity that humour should be applied. Furthermore we have tools to track sentiment around brands and gauge what’s working and what’s not.

In simple terms, it can be helpful to think about how your brand is behaving if they came to life as a shopkeeper. Creating a brand personality that draws people in, sets them at ease, earns trust and leaves them at the end of a transaction with a desire to return.

headshot of Carl Sarney, Head of Strategy at TRA
Carl Sarney
Head of Strategy at TRA
Carl has 20 years of insight industry experience. He is specialised in brand and comms strategy with a proven history of effective work for his clients, including several gold awards for advertising effectiveness. His research work has taken him to just about every town in New Zealand to speak with people from all walks of life. He's also conducted qualitative research in eight more countries while based in London for two years and spent seven years as an ad agency planner before joining TRA in 2018.

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