The past few months have played out like a particularly downbeat new version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Dr. Fauci, no vaccine, global virus on the scene, murder hornets, Cuomo, COVID bid us goodbye!).
So little wonder we’re in the mood for a laugh. As we begin to see rays of hope beyond the pandemic — and believe us, they are there — we thought it was the right moment to give you a smile. And when we considered how to do that, we didn’t have to look far.
See, out of home advertising has always had a sense of humor. Billboards have a limited time to get your attention. Saying something funny on them has a much better chance of engaging people than trying a more traditional branding approach.
Of course, the thing about humor is that it can be subjective. Not every attempt at humor works, and so if you’re going to try to make a funny sign, you better make sure you show it to a lot of people first and they all agree that it’s funny. Otherwise you might get noticed … but not for the reason you want to.
Here are nine billboards that inarguably worked.
Sex sells, yes. But it becomes funny when it’s used for misdirection.
This advertisement for Subway has absolutely nothing to do with sandwiches, and yet it works because of the shock value. Sexy billboards usually don’t spell it out like this (and there’s nothing sexy about the actual word “sex”). It turns the tables on the concept of sex sells by using the term as a sellpoint without actually doing anything sexy. Smart work.
We’ve seen a lot of funny billboards related to engagements or weddings. Maybe because matrimony is such a serious subject, making a joke adds a little levity to that whole lifetime commitment thing.
This one is funny but it also argues a pertinent point. It demonstrates how durable and enduring the advertiser’s product is. The best ads make an argument. This has a thesis and a conclusion, and it still manages to be funny.
Sometimes you read an ad and you have to start over and read it again because you think, “Did they really say that?” Yes, in this case, they did. One McDonald’s in New Mexico saw its ad go viral three years ago with a not-so-subtle reference to rolling a joint. It’s a risky strategy, of course, to mention pot in an ad meant to appeal to a wide base of consumers.
But in this case, the risk paid off. Commuters found the ad hysterical, and local TV stations covered the controversial billboard, giving it more exposure.
4. Four Seasons Heating & Air Conditioning
Now, Four Seasons is hardly the first company to use this joke … we’ve seen it in other places throughout the country. No wonder — it’s funny and it focuses on problem-solving. Once you get over the initial chuckle, you realize how on-point the messaging is. It’s hot in your house. You need someone to fix it. Four Seasons is there for you.
Simplicity often goes a long way with a funny ad. Complexity can be too hard to comprehend in the seconds you have to read and grasp the billboard while zooming down the highway.
This billboard is anything but subtle, which is a good thing. When it comes to billboards, you want the point to be obvious.
Changing the billboard in different ways like this gets your point across and draws people’s attention. And this is amusing. It conveys the man’s problem and offers a pat solution. (After months of sitting on our couch binging Netflix during this pandemic, we can kind of relate to the poor guy, too.)
OK, granted, right now an empty toilet paper roll could be for other reasons, like the global pandemic-induced TP shortage … but this billboard tells a universally understood story that resonates even when toilet paper is not a major daily issue of discussion.
Everyone knows what happens when you need Imodium. Illustrating it this way gets the point across quickly and clearly. And it’s the type of billboard you’ll see shared on social media because it’s clever and, hey, who doesn’t like bathroom humor.
Sometimes visuals make all the difference. This billboard tells a story — the Bic razor is strong enough to cut through the tough grass, so your mutton chops will be no problem!
The razor appears to be resting against the billboard after a job well done. Giant props are always amusing, but the arresting plain white behind the razor also emphasizes the straightforwardness of the visual. It’s funny and it’s on-point, just as all advertising should be.
Nothing like throwing out a cheeky challenge only to get absolutely owned by the answer. By itself, the BMW ad would make no sense. But Audi’s bold billboard throws down the gauntlet, and BMW’s bolder answer makes a memorable reply as well as something people will snicker about as they drive by. Confidence can make a good joke even funnier, and BMW certainly has that on display here.
9. Asia Air
Swear words are funny. Things that sound like swear words but actually aren’t are hysterical, as Asia Air recognizes in this ad encouraging people to fly to the beautiful beaches of Phuket. Again, the ad stays on-message, like all the best advertising. It lays out a logical course of thought: “Fares are cheap. I should go.” The pronunciation of Phuket provides the punchline, and while it’s an obvious joke, it still works.
Humor is especially important right now as we grapple with so many serious things in our everyday lives. If you can make an advertisement funny, you generate goodwill and make people more likely to remember it.
While not all ads are appropriate for jokes — some industries just aren’t funny, and trying to make them that way would be offensive — many are. Talk to us about what you want to convey in your advertising.