Along Madison Avenue, it is time to offer consumers yuks for bucks.
Comedians, stars of situation comedies and actors known for being funny have long been mainstays of advertising, on the theory that laughter can sweeten a sales spiel. Recently, their popularity seems to be increasing — sometimes to the point that television viewers or magazine readers may feel that they are sitting through a set at a comedy club.
Examples include Ellen DeGeneres, who sells CoverGirl and Olay cosmetic and beauty products for Procter & Gamble; Jimmy Kimmel, who performs in commercials for brands like Kellogg's on his ABC late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live; Jane Krakowski of the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, who is part of a campaign for Trop50 beverages sold by PepsiCo; Melissa McCarthy of the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly, who will appear in a new campaign for Ivory soap, also from Procter; J.K. Simmons of movies such as Juno, who is the star of a campaign for Farmers Insurance; and Patrick Warburton of sitcoms such as Rules of Engagement and Seinfeld, who appears in ads for Honda.
In some instances, marketers are turning to the same sitcom to find ad stars. Modern Family on ABC is contributing two cast members: Ty Burrell, in a campaign for a new juice, Minute Maid Pure Squeezed, from the Coca-Cola Co., and Sofia Vergara, in ads for CoverGirl and Kmart.
Some marketers are not satisfied with a single funny face. For example, a campaign for Healthy Choice meals, sold by ConAgra Foods, includes Mindy Kaling of The Office on NBC and Jane Lynch of Glee on Fox.
The bank Capital One is running three campaigns with a different comedic performer in each: Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Fallon and Jerry Stiller.
A reason for the trend is the same reason for the resurgence in comedy series on television: the economy. When times are hard, a soft sell can often work better than a head-on approach.
During the Depression, advertisers turned to funny radio performers to peddle their wares, among them Fred Allen, for Bristol-Myers brands like Ipana toothpaste; Jack Benny, for Jell-O; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, for Chase & Sanborn coffee; and Fibber McGee and Molly, for Johnson's Wax.
Another reason for the prevalence of comic personalities is their ability to woo consumers into paying attention to ads. That is important in an era when DVRs and remote controls make it easy to avoid commercials and marketers seek to attract visitors to Facebook fan pages and YouTube.
"Eating healthy could be a serious topic, but we didn't want to go there," said Dave Linne, senior vice president for content creation at ConAgra, referring to the Healthy Choice campaign by SapientNitro in New York. By using stars like Kaling and Lynch, he added, "we're trying to be a little more light-hearted."
For Minute Maid Pure Squeezed, said Charles Torrey, vice president for marketing for the Minute Maid trademark, "humor is a way to differentiate ourselves in a stodgy category" as well as to "humanize" the brand "and make it more relevant."
"We don't want to take ourselves too seriously," he added, and hiring Burrell is a way to "take a more down-to-earth approach" to bringing out a new product.
Torrey's take on marketing was echoed by Marc Mentry, senior vice president for advertising and creative at Capital One Financial Corp., which uses two Omnicom Group agencies, DDB Chicago and Rodgers Townsend, to create the three comic campaigns.
"We often say, 'We're very serious about your money, but we don't take ourselves too seriously,' " Mentry said, and as a result, "humor has been a part of the brand for the 12 years we've been advertising it."
Humor can make a bank seem "approachable," he added, "create an emotional bond and break through the clutter."
In the insurance category, said John Ingersoll, vice president for advertising at Farmers, "humor is almost an expectation," citing ads from competitors like Geico. Farmers decided to join in because "we don't want to win the contest for the most dull and boring insurance company anymore."
But because buying insurance can be a major decision, Ingersoll said, it is crucial that the ads be perceived as "smart humor, not slapstick."
It is "a fine line," he acknowledges, and adds that in tests so far, consumers are saying: " 'It's not stupid funny. It's smart funny.' "