Kate Nicholas: Reasons to be cheerful, part 1

It could probably only happen in Britain. Take 1,300-plus Americans who had paid between £9,800 and £41,985 for a round-the-world cruise, let them chug about the Channel in the drizzle for ten days and you would probably have a riot.

Instead, a large proportion of Aurora passengers have been won over by P&O’s offering of compensation and booze. And the media coverage has, in general, been surprisingly positive. Yes, there have been the clever-dick headlines and scathing commentary, but the humour has been generally benign and, if anything, has taken the edge off what has been mooted as ‘the PR disaster of the year’.

It is this idiosyncratic British sense of humour that is one of the most unpredictable and least understood elements of media relations. The use of humour in advertising has been the subject of countless graduate theses and is analysed to death on media and comms courses, but there has been little written on the effect that humour in editorial has on a corporate brand. And while measurement and evaluation firms will include elements such as cartoons in their media analysis, there is, to my knowledge, no measure that takes into account the complexity of humour and its effect on audiences.

This is possibly because there is no universal definition of humour, other than that it makes us smile. However, as anyone used to dealing with the tabloids is aware, the term ‘humour’ covers a vast array of manifestations, from outright sarcasm to affectionate ribbing.

There are few companies brave, or perhaps foolish, enough to take the risk of actively using humour as a corporate strategy. Remember Gerald Ratner! Most CEOs take themselves and their brands far too seriously to risk flippancy. And one thing is clear: humour doesn’t guarantee greater credibility.

But a lack of humour can be equally damaging. I suspect the marketing disaster known as Dasani would probably have been better handled if someone in the PR department at Coca-Cola had a sense of humour wicked enough to spot the Del Boy connection before the media. Likewise,

Cadbury’s much-maligned voucher campaign might have drawn less flack if someone internally had seen the inherent humour in getting kids to buy more chocolate to get fit.

British humour is often peculiar, but it is all-pervasive, and a greater understanding of it would help any PRO seeking to operate within our media environment. Looks like a potential subject for a PhD thesis to me.

kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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