In a 2003 IKEA commercial a young woman discards a red lamp on a street curb. Sitting next to a black trash bag in the rain, the lamp appears cold and lonely. Inside a nearby home, the woman lovingly touches her new lamp. A melancholy tune plays in the background, and the camera pans to the lamp as its neck sags and shade droops. Out of nowhere, a man with a Scandinavian accent pops in to say: "Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you're crazy. It has no feelings. And the new one is much better."
The IKEA spot, created by ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, was chosen as the funniest TV commercial among 37 viewed by six judges from the advertising industry and one in the comedy business. Market research and communication firm Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, a unit of Omnicom Group, provided handheld meters that allowed the judges to record second-by-second reactions to the commercials, which dated from 1965.
The humor in "Lamp" was tied to emotions, pulling viewers in one direction, and then surprising them in the end, says Helayne Spivak, chief creative director of at New York's Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, a unit of Publicis.
Another popular ad among the judges started out looking somber but then took a whimsical twist. The 1996 Levi's spot featured a terribly ill hospital patient who starts singing the 1981 song "Tainted Love," by British rock band Soft Cell, when he hears the beeping of a heart monitor. Doctors chime in and revive the singing patient as his heart rate goes flat. "It actually starts out as being the complete opposite of funny," says George Dewey, executive creative director of McCann-Erickson, an Interpublic Group shop, in New York. "It's strange and then appealing because it's so original."
Other ads, including a 1981 spot for Fed Ex, featuring John Moschitta Jr., considered the world's fastest talking man, kept the judges laughing from beginning to end. "This was a clever device to communicate the speed of the company," says Linda Sawyer, CEO of Interpublic Group agency Deutsch in New York.
Likewise, the judges liked a 1998 commercial created by New York agency Cliff Freeman & Partners for Web start-up Outpost.com. In it, gerbils are fired from a cannon. It was an audacious act, judges say, but one that was perfect for the over-the-top Internet boom. "New businesses were trying to get their name out at any cost," says Chris Mitton, a creative director at WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather in New York.
So what makes something funny? Caroline Hirsch, owner of New York comedy club Caroline's on Broadway, says: "Laughter occurs in comedy when something is real and people can relate to it. It's connecting to honesty and truth." When the Wendy's "Where's the beef?" commercial debuted in 1984, people could relate to the feeling of disappointment when seeing the comical size of a tiny beef patty on a big bun, Hirsch says.
Funny ads like these aren't often created in bad economic times, the judges say. Commercials being made in the downturn tend to be "safe" spots that are mean to drive sales or build trust. "The risk of misfire is too great right now," says Deutsch's Sawyer. "Unfortunately, it's often humor that makes people remember an image or a product."
Mixing animals and comedy seems to make ads memorable. Minneapolis firm Fallon used cat-herding cowboys in a 2000 Super Bowl spot for Hewlett-Packard technology firm EDS. The same year, Omnicom's DDB used a ferret in a Budweiser spot that barely missed the judges' top 10 ads. Another ferret appeared in Verizon's 2002 texting promo, created by Bozell, now part of Interpublic Group's Lowe Worldwide.
Of course, humor isn't the save-all for agencies or brands. Crispin Porter, the agency that created the award-winning spot "Lamp," no longer handles the IKEA account. And Outpost.com, the online technology retailer that ran the gerbil ad our judges loved so much? The brand disappeared when Merrimack, N.H., firm PC Connections acquired the company in 2001.