Small Business Advertising: Be Serious Or Be Funny?

Choosing the Best Strategy When You Advertise

Humor is a very tricky advertising challenge and if not done correctly it can backfire and end up costing you a lot of money. And even when it works, you may not get the result you want (i.e., a sale), so I say, be careful.

Example: Back when I was still practicing law full-time, my firm decided to launch a cable TV ad campaign. It was an expensive proposition and so we really worked hard at getting it right. Finally, we ended up with an ad that went something like this:

 [Lawyer with client]: “Mumbo jumbo, jumbo mumbo, mumbo jumbo!”

 [Me into the camera]: At the Strauss Law Firm, you won’t get a lot of mumbo jumbo, but you will get some straight talk…”

We thought it was funny, on point, and catchy, but apparently not a lot of other people did because the campaign fell flat and never really accomplished much.

Why Funny Ads Work When They Work

Look, Budweiser can run funny ads far better than almost any small business, for several reasons:

*     They have a huge budget

*     They have a slew of people whose job is to make funny, memorable ads

*     They have the time and resources to brand themselves accordingly

We small business people don’t.

When a small freelance business person advertises, they almost always have one or two goals in mind: To make a sale or get a new customer. Sure, large corporations have the same goals, but they have the ability to go about it from several angles (print, events, online, pricing, branding, etc.), not just with a funny ad.

So I say, approach humor in your advertising with caution (unless of course, your business is about being funny, that is a different story.) Your job is to sell, not amuse.


Sure humor can be a good hook, but usually, people expect the hook to relate to the business. That is yet another reason why humor does not always work for the solopreneur businesses – it may confuse your intended audience who already has a short attention span.

More Reasons to Approach Funny Advertising Carefully

There are several other reasons why humor in small business advertising should be used judiciously:

It may not be funny: What you think is funny may not be universal. People have different tastes and you likely lack the budget to test market your funny bone.

You probably lack the funds to create a humorous brand: Humor in advertising works especially well when people come to expect comedy from a particular ad or company. But lacking a budget to create that expectation in people’s mind means you will probably have to spend much of your ad setting up the joke and less on telling people why they need to notice and buy from you.

It may miss the point: The worst thing that could happen, and does happen, is for people to notice your ad and remember the joke, but not your business. Doesn’t that happen to you – you like a commercial but don’t remember whom it is for?

This is all even doubly true in this economy and this market; what people are looking for right now is value. If you can use humor to catch their eye while also showing them how they are getting a good value by using you, then by all means, go for it. But that is a tall order in any sort of advertisement.

It is probably a better use of your money then to get them to notice you with that old-fashioned, tried-and-true, recession-busting, greatest-hits of a headline –


And that, my friends, is no mumbo jumbo.

Steve Strauss – Senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible, Steve is your host at

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