Last year was filled with doom and gloom for many reasons - but one thing that could at least raise a smile was the return of comedy in adverts. 

After years of brands pursuing purpose-driven campaigns and decades of decline in grin-inducing ads, exacerbated by the pandemic, the return of funny spots was a major trend, born out by research by System1 which found more than half of the 2023 Cannes Lions winners (52%) were deliberately humorous, up from 43% the previous year.

You only have to switch on the telly right now to see that comedy ads are back. From Etsy’s excellent Mission Impossible campaign, to the ever-reliable Paddy Power spots earning genuine laughs, not least for their recent ad imagining a parallel universe where Barry from EastEnders ends up with model Abbey Clancy, humour is back on the menu.

So much so, Cannes Lions are even introducing a new humour category this year, more proof that humour is starting to win out over purpose. It will reward ads that “celebrate the art of humour in branded communications” and “use wit and satire to provide amusement and create memorable, laughter-inducing connections.”

Lord knows we need joy right now as an antidote to the current crapness of the world, after years of political and social turmoil, Covid, cost of living crisis, ongoing actual wars as well as the culture wars along with the possible return of Trump. But we literally need humour - we’ve evolved that it’s essential to our survival.

It’s not just humans either - primates and apes also enjoy a good chuckle, (the Japanese macaque who recently spent a few days on the run after escaping from a wildlife park in Scotland is probably still laughing about his shenanigans). Scientists think laughter helps us and monkeys survive, because generally, it’s a communal activity which promotes bonding, lowers anxiety and dissipates anger, and temporarily supersedes negative emotions. 

It’s good for us physically too. It lowers levels of stress hormone cortisol, but ramps up “feel good” hormones dopamine and serotonin and releases endorphins, which have pain-relieving effects - laughter really is medicine.  

Great new advert from Magnum

Of course, humour is subjective. It used to be that only slapstick and physical comedy appealed across cultures and countries, but the appeal of different kinds of humour is broadening, possibly with the growing popularity of streaming services and our increasing appetite for foreign language series and films. Take the new Magnum advert, with the faux-moustache wearing fake partner. Not only is it funny, it’s so cinematic and well crafted, it could be mistaken for a scene from a Netflix or Apple TV show. 

But regardless of what tickles your funny bone, the fact remains that we always need a bit of cheering up - and it makes solid business sense for the creative industry, if you can get it right and land the giggles rather than the ick. 

Kantar’s recent AdReaction study found people are more positive about ads based on humour. The research found folk are more likely to remember them and the brand involved due to the emotional connection built by humour, because people have more ‘mental availability’ for something that entertains them. 

Plus, anything that makes people laugh is more likely to get shared, not least because of the TikTokification of everything - most viral videos are funny, as this poor woman found out  after some 30 million views of her failed attempt to break into her own house. 

Even before the advent of social media, some of the most memorable ads ever stick in the mind because of their humour. They’re often the ones consumers remember most - from the series of Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter ads for Cinzano in the 1970s, to Gregor Fisher with his hopeless comb-over in the photo booth for Hamlet in 1986 and You’ve Been Tangoed from 1992 onwards. 

Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins in the famous Cinzano adverts of the 1970s and 1980s

The Should Have Gone To Specsavers series of hugely witty ads meant the phrase even entered the British lexicon, and the first ad only debuted in 2002. I still laugh when I think of that sorry sheepdog. It demonstrates the best funny ads are up there with some of the best comedy sketch shows - their catchphrases are adopted into everyday language as much as those from the likes of The Fast Show - “Suits you!” - or Catherine Tate -“Am I bovvered?”.

They always landed gongs too. Let's not forget The Man Your Man Could Smell Like for Old Spice, which won at Cannes in 2010, and who doesn't love the original viral ad John West's 'Bear’ which won a Gold Lion in 2001.

But leaving awards aside, new research has shown the importance and effectiveness of ads that make people laugh out loud. So, while a shiny trophy might raise a smug grin, humour is even more valuable than that.

Some hilarious recent ads have actually pushed boundaries, like pollution-tackling tinned water brand Liquid Death’s showing kids supposedly getting boozed up, when the cans contain nothing more alcoholic than H20.

It’s also an example of humour being baked in creatively from brand conception onwards. It was all the idea of former creative director Mike Cessario - and the brand is wildly successful.

So as 2024 unfolds, let’s keep reminding ourselves that funny ads can be rewarding in myriad different ways. In fact, isn’t it time brands went even further and got creatives involved from new product development and beyond? Because there’s real worth in mirth.

Rich Denney will be writing regular column for MAD//Insight throughout the year.