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Humor: The hard-core kid creative

In marketing to kids, fun is everything. Fun, and the humor that creates it, sells. In Part II of a three-part series, The Geppetto Group, a leading kids advertising and marketing agency, offers insight into the mechanisms of kid humor that...
February 1, 1999

In marketing to kids, fun is everything. Fun, and the humor that creates it, sells. In Part II of a three-part series, The Geppetto Group, a leading kids advertising and marketing agency, offers insight into the mechanisms of kid humor that might even your odds in getting a laugh and a sale. Last month, the focus was strategy; this month, creative is put under the kid-humor-defining microscope.

Kid humor originates from the dynamic between kids’ frustrations with the real world and the fantasies they use to escape it. Kids are frustrated by the limitations imposed upon them by the outside world, but they believe this condition can be changed. They seek out ways to transform their world into a place where they are heroes and where those who would restrict, limit and frustrate them are reduced to punch lines.

In contrast, adult humor revels in resignation and commiseration. From Rodney Dangerfield getting ‘No respect,’ to Homer Simpson crying ‘DOH!,’ adult humor is an exercise in acknowledging our limitations. What’s funny about adult humor is the realization that everyone else’s life is as bad as ours, if not worse.

For kids, humor is not about reality, but about fantasy. And so are kid products. Both are mechanisms for escape. Both provide the child with his or her ticket out. A well-timed show of flatulence can make a class laugh and make the teacher seem powerless and small. Is it any wonder that humor sells?

To maximize this relationship between product and humor, kid advertising must accurately depict the world of the child. All commercials should ultimately be demonstrations of what the product does and what the product does for the child. These demonstrations need to be precise and accurate with respect to the situation, dialogue and visuals. The comedy must also be crafted with an eye towards a specific age and gender. What’s funny to a six-year-old boy might turn an eight-year-old girl into a half-pint heckler. With kids, the secret to comedy is a lot more than just timing.

There are many executional mechanisms of kid humor that, though rooted in fantasy and frustration, are the real goods when it comes to selling to kids.

* Hyperbole: Exaggeration is at the center of all kid humor. Kids do not think in parody and cynicism the way adults do. Kid humor is extreme, physical and visual. Visualize the product benefit!

* Taboos: Flatulence, saying bad words, making fun of adults or people’s physical imperfections are good for a laugh because they are representative of all the things that kids are forbidden to do. Can a product be a benign link to something naughty?

* Incongruity: Humor can also emerge from people not behaving the way they are expected to, such as babies smoking cigars or stoic corporate leaders sobbing. Part of Jim Carrey’s appeal to younger kids is that he’s an adult who talks out of his ass, an adult who acts like a child. What fantasy could be more appealing to a child than seeing the roles that they’re forced to conform to destroyed? Can a product alter the hierarchy?

* Expectation: Familiarity helps kids process information. That’s in part why equity characters are so successful in pitching products. ‘I knew he was going to get caught!’ kids will say of the Trix Rabbit. This sense of familiarity allows kids to spot what’s new about the product.

Humor in kids advertising is a tough gig. The executional elements must be dead on. The concept must balance recognition of frustration with the promise of escape. The product must be clearly linked to the humorous outcome, because a child will not rationalize the benefit. And the kids must laugh, because when it comes to commerce and comedy, if kids don’t get it, kids won’t want it.

Chris McKee is chief creative officer and founding partner of New York-based The Geppetto Group.

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