This essay originally appeared in the February/March 2018 issue of Creative Review.
A TV producer once gave me a great definition of a sitcom. “In a sitcom,” she said, “there’s always a character trying to climb out of a life situation, but they’re always pulled back down, and that’s the comedy.”
Fast-forwarding through some of my favourite sitcoms, her account rings true. Jen is looking for corporate promotion, Roy is trying to find love and Moss wants to be a Mastermind champion, but all are stuck in tech support basement hell in The IT Crowd.
Three thousand five hundred miles west and a few floors higher, Liz Lemon is trying to find the value in her nerditude, Tracy Jordan is looking to be a zero-effort megastar and Jenna Maroney is hoping to be a serious movie actor, but all are saddled with the daily TV reality of 30 Rock.
Looked at this way, the sitcom is fundamentally an anti-aspirational idea, and it could help to explain why brands are so reluctant to embrace comedy nowadays.
When I left college, I wanted to be a copywriter. I was lured by the possibility of creating sponsored entertainment for a living. Of making people smile, and maybe even laugh, while helping a client make the case for their wares.
The campaigns I wanted to emulate all traded humour for affection. Sure, they were funny, but they all had something else in common too. They were all advertising products made for the masses. Powdered mash potato, lagers, soft drinks, lagers, tea bags, lagers, inexpensive cigars and more lagers. Products that weren’t special but could do something special by bringing a little lightness into our humdrum lives.
Products that lived alongside us, helping us laugh at ourselves. At our own potato-peeling idiocy, or at our bald-headed combovers, or at the way we were utterly silent about life but total gobshites about Yorkshire bitter.
Products that didn’t try to improve us, but told us that we were fine and funny just the way we were.
Then came the aspiration pandemic. Blame Thatcher, Blame Blair, blame the City, blame Silicon Valley, but suddenly we all had to be wealthier, better educated, more tanned, better dressed, younger, cooler, taller, more ripped. We had to wear the best-cut jeans, say the final word, have smaller computers, bigger smartphones. We all had to live in more stylish homes, go on more exotic holidays and have less jet lag when we got there.
Instead of being stuck in a life, we wanted a better kind of life. And brands were happy to oblige. Of course they were. Sell a lager and you only charge for a lager. Sell a dream and you can charge anything. To fuel our aspirations, brands turned away from comedy.
They turned to style. They showed us the airbrushed and retouched lives we wanted to lead, full of people as young as we wanted to be, keeping as silent as we wished we could keep, saying words as sharp as wanted to say. Painting a picture of happiness with white teeth, golden skin and black credit cards, making us unhappy every day when we failed to attain it.
They turned to purpose. They tethered their brands to miscellaneous world-changing agendas, Invoking the speeches of civil rights leaders to sell trucks, the words of hunger strikers to sell computers, the courage of peaceful protestors to sell colas and the many faces of diversity to rent out empty flats. Calling on consumers’ better instincts to advance their own commercial gains.
Or they turned to wit. They divided us with a separatist form of humour that some people got and some people didn’t, marking the smart and sophisticated out from the less so. To the former, they offered their financial magazines, luxury cars and business class flights. To the latter, they offered nothing but their superiority.
Using style, purpose and wit, these brands asked us to climb, but they didn’t offer us the opportunity to laugh. They believed that aspiration was – and still is – a serious business. But are they right? Who says that people looking to make more of themselves aren’t prepared to laugh at themselves? Who says they’re not prepared to find aspiration funny? For one thing, there’s no shortage of material. I mean, just look at us.
We grow fisherman beards and catch our sushi at Tesco. We hail the newest coffee bar as the most authentic. We curse our phones then find salvation in yoga and mindfulness apps. We talk more to our Alexas than our children. We use Ubers as first class public transport. We pay fitness tax in the form of our underused gym memberships. We happily accept an insulting and immoral class system in every airport and on every plane.
We value a push notification of a presidential impeachment as much as a push notification of our next haircut. We pick up free-sheets stuffed with ads and a few of yesterday’s events and think we’re reading the news.
We have piles of books that were easier to order on Amazon than they are to read. We bin 75 painful selfies for each effortless Instagram post. We can’t be comfortable with ourselves until our therapists give us permission.
These are comic times. And yet brands are reluctant to explore the comedy. Brands cite marketing today as tactical not brand-building, and that comedy is brand-building not tactical. They say their consumers and their hopes and dreams deserve to be taken seriously. But they’re wrong. Aspiration is no longer unusual or special. It’s a daily part of our crazy lives, and many of us are ready to find the comedy in who we are and who we’re trying to be. And they’re ready for our brands to find it with us.
It will take brave brands who are ready to leap over the earnestness of their sector. Ready to embrace a comedy persona that only bargain-basement brands seem happy to embrace – the price comparison sites and fried chicken outlets of an otherwise po-faced brand world.
And it will take clever brands to understand which buttons to push. To understand how to make the comedy relatable so it makes us wince just as it makes us laugh. To understand how to find fun in our upwardly-mobile lives without pulling us down sitcom-style. But the best brands have always been brave and clever.
It’s time for them to be funny again.