Imagine this: the denizens of social media, numbering in their millions, all liking, sharing, and laughing along with a joke that supports your brand.
For marketers, the prospect of creating a viral internet trend can be an extremely profitable, yet elusive, goal.
Many brands have nailed the art of the sassy social post, but it’s not easy and it’s not for everyone. How do you know if “funny” is a good look for your brand? Just ask Wendy’s.
It all started with this exchange in the beginning of January:
Our beef is way too cool to ever be frozen. 😎 pic.twitter.com/QuXECJtlq5
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) December 30, 2016
@NHride Where do you store cold things that aren’t frozen?
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 2, 2017
@NHride You don’t have to bring them into this just because you forgot refrigerators existed for a second there.
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 2, 2017
Ever since, the internet has been losing its Twitter-loving mind over Wendy’s roasts. The chatter extended far beyond Twitter to forums like Reddit and even more traditional news sites like the Washington Post and Business Insider, earning Wendy’s a ton of free publicity along with the love of millions of fans.
So why did these jokes hit home (when so many others fall flat)?
The psychology of humor dates back to ancient Greek philosophy, but people are still conjuring up new academic theories today. Dr. Peter McGraw and Dr. Caleb Warren, both researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, crafted one of these more contemporary ideas — the benign violation theory of humor.
The benign violation theory predicts that humor occurs when a situation satisfies three exact conditions:
To better understand this theory in action, let’s deconstruct one of Wendy’s hilarious tweets:
@LacedlLouie Now you’re just punishing yourself.
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 3, 2017
A “violation” is something that just doesn’t seem right. We all have a vast collection of expectations about the way the world ought to be: social norms, a standard of language, a desire for safety, etc. A violation defies these.
The quip in the tweet above – the idea that eating at Burger King is, essentially, masochism – violates our expectations of what a trip to Burger King is like. Most of us expect eating at Burger King to be an enjoyable experience at best and unremarkable at worst.
Many things can make a situation benign, or non-threatening. One way to do this is to not have a strong belief in the standard or value system the joke is violating, or to make the threatening thing seem distant.
The tweet above registers as benign because we are not intimidated by it. This is the case because most people will not feel offended, or otherwise wronged, by an attack on a fast food chain like Burger King (except, perhaps, the executive team there).
In a broader sense than this single tweet, consumers and internet users usually expect a major restaurant brand to write in a dry, corporate, and artificially friendly manner. Wendy’s Twitter account violates this expectation. The violation is benign because most observers don’t take serious offense to a fast food brand dishing out snarky comments.
Many brands can replicate this type humor by violating expectations, as long as they don’t cross the line into being offensive or threatening.
What expectations are okay to violate? Start to answer this question by examining your industry or field: what are consumers expecting from you? What is ‘business-as-usual’ in your marketing? Identify these beliefs before upending them (hint: it also helps to have a state-of-the-art tool to listen to changing trends on social media).
Most importantly, don’t forget to stay benign. Most marketers know better than to be blatantly offensive, but even minor changes in wording can make a violation threatening.
Imagine, for example, if the Wendy’s social media manager had likened eating at Burger King to self-harm or suicide. While the underlying meaning of our example tweet wouldn’t have changed much, a lot of people would have not found the joke funny. While the nature of the violation hasn’t changed, this new and sensitive subject matter would not be benign because it threatens our belief in the sanctity of life and sensitivity to those in need.
Putting these ingredients together, the benign violation theory provides an easy operative framework for humor in your marketing. And while this article has been about laying out the rules of engagement, remember — humor is all about breaking the rules!