Social media

Do brands and humour mix on social media?

Poundland’s controversial festive campaign has focused attention again on whether brands should use humour on social media

It took almost two months for the Advertising Standards Authority to rule that Poundland’s Elf on the Shelf festive campaign on social media in the run up to Christmas had been ‘irresponsible’ and, in an extraordinary case of shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted, ban any repetition of the adverts.

The ASA’s action followed 85 complaints that the adverts, one of which featured an Elf on the Shelf doll appearing to perform an unspeakable act on a (presumably) off-brand Barbie doll, were offensive. But offensive or not – social media users swiftly dubbed them ‘not safe for work’ (NSFW) – if the Poundland’s strategy was to raise awareness and get tongues wagging, it has largely worked.

The love on Facebook has been overwhelming, and that’s because it connects with our shoppers. We’re proud of a campaign that’s only cost £25.53 and is being touted as the winning marketing campaign this Christmas

The ASA’s ruling sparked a renewed wave of media coverage for Elf on the Shelf, adding to the 63 pieces generated in the run up to Christmas, according to research from Kantar Media, for a campaign that, had it not been risqué, would likely have disappeared into the ether without a trace.

And Poundland experienced the most successful Christmas performance in its 27-year history, with sales over the festive period increasing by 5.6 per cent. Its flagship store in Wolverhampton made £100,000 in a single week before Christmas, while overall sales reached £59 million. If the Advertising Standards Authority expected Poundland to demonstrate any remorse, it would have been disappointed.

Addressing the online storm before Christmas, the company boasted that the viral post, in which Elf on the Shelf holds a teabag above poor Barbie’s head, cost just £25.53 to create. And marketing director Mark Pym added: ‘The love on Facebook has been overwhelming, and that’s because it connects with our shoppers. We’re proud of a campaign that’s only cost £25.53 and is being touted as the winning marketing campaign this Christmas!’ In its defence to ASA, Poundland pointed out that 33 million people had viewed the adverts collectively and that it had gained 43,000 new followers.

A poll of 12,000 Twitter followers found that 82 per cent supported Elf on the Shelf, although Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy spoke for many when she tweeted #FaceInHands #21stCenturyCalling in response to the campaign. Cynics might argue that too much attention has been paid to a short-lived campaign designed to sell a bit more tinsel, but it has brought another debate to the fore: is there a place for potentially offensive humour on brands’ social media channels? Is it true, after all, that all publicity is good publicity?

‘From [Poundland’s] perspective, they got a hell of a lot of social media reach, and a hell of a lot of press coverage for that campaign,’ says Paul Sutton, social media consultant. ‘The question you ask is Was it worth it? To them, it probably was, because I expect they made sales through it. The long-term value from something like that is more questionable.’

The received wisdom is that the value of such a campaign depends on your brand. Irish betting firm Paddy Power has a long history of close-to-the-bone humour. Back in 2002, its advert featuring two old ladies crossing the road with odds bubbles against them was the year’s most complained about; Paddy Power claimed the odds related to which lady crossed the road first, not which one would be knocked over first.

In 2015, one of its stunts included sending a lorry to Calais that was covered with the words Immigrants, jump in the back (but only if you’re good at sport!)

It was retweeted more than 1,000 times in the first hour.

And last year its advert using the hashtag #AlwaysBetOnBlack in reference to the upcoming boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor was banned by the ASA.

‘There’s only one Paddy Power,’ says Sutton. ‘Paddy Power can get away with pretty much whatever it wants. It always pushes right up to the line; very rarely does it step over that. But they can get away with saying a lot of stuff on a wide range of topics, because that is their brand persona.’

But Paddy Power also apologises if it causes offence, even if these do not appear to be heartfelt. In response to the #AlwaysBetOnBlack incident, the company issued the statement: ‘We respect the decision of the ASA and apologise to the nine people who complained about our Always Bet On Black advert.’ The statement concluded: ‘Paddy Power accepts the findings of the ASA Council and we will take this decision on the chin. Like Conor did.’

The statement retained Paddy Power’s voice and authenticity. Sutton notes that saying sorry doesn’t always mean admitting you’re wrong. ‘Saying sorry doesn’t mean admitting liability, but it does mean that you’re taking responsibility,’ he says. After all, as Rebecca Grant, managing director of agency Cohn & Wolfe points out, crises rarely decimate a reputation but ‘how the crisis is handled can shape the audience’s opinion’.

‘From a reputation perspective, you can’t be light-hearted about offending someone, you need to apologise in some sort of way,’ explains Roz Sheldon, managing partner, client services, at agency Igniyte. ‘If you think it’s okay not to apologise, people will think Is that a reflection of how they treat people? Is it reflective of how they will treat me down the line?’

Chris Smith, associate director of digital at agency Ketchum, agrees. ‘If someone gets in touch with an actual concern or gripe, that person will feel that they are not being heard or that you are trivialising their issue if you use humour. That is a natural reaction,’ he says. ‘It makes the issue bigger.’

‘There needs to be a consistent apology across all platforms,’ continues Sheldon. ‘Twitter moves quickly, as long as there’s a clear apology, you can draw a line under it. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is human.’

Poundland’s ‘do not apologise’ strategy is seen as unusual. ‘Put it this way – [Poundland] knew that within two or three days people would move onto the next thing,’ says Sutton.

‘[It] didn’t feel any need to apologise or be apologetic for what they had done. That’s a very arrogant stance to take. I don’t think it’s good for any brand in the long run because the lasting image that people will have of them is being, in this case, very misogynistic, arrogant, and not really caring that they’ve offended people.’

He points to the example of American fashion house Kenneth Cole, which found itself at the centre of a Twitterstorm in 2011. As violent protests broke out across Egypt in response to increasing police brutality, the eponymous fashion designer himself tweeted Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at -KC.

‘The mere fact that I am talking about this now, years later, shows that there is lasting repercussions for doing this sort of stuff,’ explains Sutton. ‘Although people move on to the next thing to be outraged about quite quickly, you don’t forget something that has actually offended you. I think it creates a lasting impression. I believe that if you see [a brand post] that you think is terrible, you are less likely to shop with them. You’ll think twice about it.’

Humour is subjective and cultures perceive humour differently. You need to know your audience will find it funny

When using humour in social media campaigns, the key is to understand the audience, a company’s brand values and also the industry in which it operates. As Tamara Littleton, chief executive and co-founder of Polpeo notes: ‘You want your bank to be trustworthy, not funny.’

But, as Sheldon points out, the socioeconomic climate is also important. The offending Poundland post, for example, was uploaded at a time where women are speaking out against systemic sexual harassment and movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up are consistently in the news. ‘It was a cheap campaign that got a disproportionate amount of media attention,’ adds Littleton. ‘They knew what they were doing. But it makes the industry look bad and out of touch with what’s going on in the world, particularly in the context of #MeToo. That campaign would never have been broadcast on TV. But social media is still seen as on the fringes. That’s changing.’

‘Every brand is going to have to make a decision about what controversial looks like,’ says Grant. ‘Some have a licence to be more controversial and are more easily forgiven. Humour is subjective and cultures perceive humour differently. You need to know your audience will find it funny.’

Joe Sinclair, co-founder and creative director at The Romans, agrees. ‘Before trying to score Internet points for being funny, brands should first work out whether the audiences on the social platforms they propose to target will actually find their humour humorous,’ he advises. ‘If the person writing your brand’s social copy could do warm up at a Jim Davidson gig, you should maybe reconsider putting spend behind the post.’

But that does not mean brands should be wary about using humour on social media. It can add genuine value. As Grant notes: ‘Humour allows brands to create a better connection that feels more real. But humour has to be in line with a brand’s values of tone of voice. Otherwise it can seem forced or out of kilter with what they stand for.’

Innocent Drinks has made a name for itself with its humour, by using somewhat twee jokes that resonate with its middle-class audience. It also uses its fair share of self-deprecating humour, which, Sutton acknowledges, often works well for brands. Bakery chain Greggs had likewise done well with jokes online, styling itself as a cheeky, no-frills sort of brand, but it too fell foul of some social media tastemakers when it posted a picture of a Nativity scene with a sausage roll in the manger instead of baby Jesus.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of corporate culture operating in the comms department that signed off an idea as tone-deaf like this, or what it feels like to be a women working in marketing at Poundland

The post was an advertisement for the bakery’s £24 Advent calendar, but it drew complaints from religious pressure groups such as Freedom Association and the UK Evangelical Alliance, who suggested it was a gimmick that seemed to be about ‘manufacturing a scandal to sell baked goods’. The bakery apologised to those it offended, but for Sutton, the entire furore was the result of a rookie social media mistake.

‘It is acknowledged that you don’t go near religion because you’re going to upset people,’ he says. ‘It’s a topic that any social media person knows: if you post something about religion, no matter which way it goes, it’s going to upset people, so you just don’t do it. To use humour in that instance was just unwise.’

The Romans’ Sinclair, on the other hand, thinks that, despite the outcry from those specific pressure groups, Greggs poked fun at a group that could handle it. The difference between that and Poundland’s Christmas incident lies in who held the power and who was being made to look like the butt of a cheap joke. ‘Forty years since The Life of Brian, we know that the Christian religion in the UK is largely one that has a thick enough skin to take a bit of a joke, even if they don’t laugh much,’ says Sinclair.

‘And, frankly, an image of a sausage roll being adored by the Magi is funny. However, where the Greggs idea punches up at traditional and power and is funny for it, it’s impossible to locate the humour in Poundland’s image of an elf ‘teabagging’ a prone female. It’s hard to imagine the kind of corporate culture operating in the comms department that signed off an idea as tone-deaf like this, or what it feels like to be a women working in marketing at Poundland.’

Sinclair believes there are other options out there for brands wanting to explore the world of fun and laughter. ‘We recently created a campaign for finger-prick blood test company Thriva, which saw us hire Ant Smith, the proud owner of the UK’s smallest penis,’ he says. ‘To explain, Thriva was keen to deliver a message around there being nothing wrong with a little prick. The campaign was covered by pretty much every national paper in the UK but didn’t elicit a single complaint. The key is knowing where the boundaries are, what you can get away and what people will find funny, and what is totally unacceptable.’