I had a quick lesson in the anthropology of humor last night, as I read my daughter's college paper about the persistent appeal of slapstick. Slapstick has apparently been around since the middle ages; it was used to great effect in Shakespearean comedies and exploded in popularity during the silent film era due to its broad, physical exaggerations that conveyed the humor of mishap.
While Chris Farley's “Matt Foley, motivational speaker” skit may require a 21th Century sensibility for full impact, the draw of slapstick crosses centuries and cultures, perhaps because we need a way of shaking off (laughing off) the steady stream of real mishap in our lives.
As we invent new ways of inspiring, engaging, enlightening, activating, and, yes, entertaining audiences today, the best PR professionals double as cultural anthropologists. We use storytelling and manufactured experience to achieve direct and indirect influence and persuasion. We use research and analytics to predict and measure the cultural norms and preferences of population subsets. I don't often stage exaggerated falls onto the coffee tables in my clients' offices, but I do work very hard to understand their customers' predispositions, predilections, and preconceptions in order to create creative content and campaigns that express brand character in a meaningful way and trigger the right response.
People are people, whether they're shopping for vodka, considering a policy issue, or evaluating a major IT implementation. Like my daughter and me, they like to be entertained, they like their information in story form, they aren't empty vessels waiting to be filled with facts and figures. These characteristics are enduring despite changes in the way we collect and use information.
We design or knit together the artifacts of brand experience: articles, ads, logos, explainer videos, social campaigns, in-store experiences, product packaging, customer service, loyalty programs. My own anthropological brand triggers tend to be design, simplicity, amazing customer service and, drumroll please, humor.
Case in point: One of the most powerful (and painful) brand experiences I have when I travel is the dreaded Delta safety video. I'm forced to watch the perfectly coifed, lip glossed, that-can't-possibly-be-her-real-mouth flight attendant tell me not to disable the lavatory smoke detectors. But Delta seems to have read my glares accurately. They introduced a new video with a new flight attendant, though the lip-glossed woman makes an appearance as a passenger.
To my amazement and delight, it is actually, intentionally, FUNNY! Remember, the closest exit may be behind you...cut to a guy in a neck brace trying to look behind him.Well played Delta, you read my anthropological profile (and apparently my daughter's paper) and responded in kind.
Jenny Moede is Waggener Edstrom Worldwide's president for the North America region.