Got humor? Funny marketing tends to stick — or bomb

Go to any stand-up comedy show with top talent and you will likely encounter lines that make you smile or even laugh. But some of the material might induce cringes instead of grins. A few North Bay companies seek to enhance their brands via humor on billboards, signs and other advertising. Though humorous advertising entails a risky traverse across a high wire, nearly a quarter of national advertisers rely on humor to catch the attention of consumers in prime-time television commercials.

Remember Geico's gecko plopped by helicopter onto Navy battleship Wisconsin, 2015. The reptile waves away dust as the chopper departs; geckos cannot blink, but lick their own eyes to clean and moisten them. We see the ship captain standing at the end of the ship's runway in his white uniform. 'Could have parked a little bit closer,' the green lizard quips. 'It's going to be dark by the time I get there.'

Done tastefully, gentle humor in branding can create warm emotional bonding between customer and company that endures for a lifetime. Bungled, comic debacles can turn customers off forever.

'Humor is a tough thing,' said Chris Denny, founder and president of Santa Rosa-based marketing company The Engine Is Red. The agency has been in business for about a decade.

'When you get it right, it's a human-level connection,' Denny said. 'The human-emotion side of branding is both the pinnacle and the crag. It's where you can create that deep connecting. When you do it right, it's impactful. But man, if you get it wrong, whether it's with humor or fear, it comes off as insincere, disrespectful.'

At a brand level, Denny uses humor sparingly, instead aiming to reach consumers with higher emotions such as delight and joy. On the advertising-campaign level, 'we bring in humor quite a bit more,' he said, about 30 percent of the time. 'We make it casual, approachable. Humor is a great way' to steer a company to not take itself so seriously. It can go a long way,' he said.

'Got poop?' The query rides in lettering several inches high at the back and sides of trucks for Environmental Pump Services, which pumps out septic tanks for residences throughout Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties.

Blaine Cristando and Eric Hawley co-founded Santa Rosa-based EPS about a decade ago. Beyond pumping septic tanks, the company pumps winery waste and material from restaurant grease traps. The business serving restaurants has grown to become most of the company's revenue.

'My wife came up with that,' Cristando said of 'Got poop?'

'People love it,' he said of the slogan. 'A lot of people laugh. We have it on our hats, our trucks, our shirts, our overalls. People stop us and take pictures. People really like it. It breaks the ice. People remember us. We're the 'got poop' guys,' he said.

Garick, LLC, an Ohio-based subsidiary of Waste Management and a Goliath competitor for EPS, has its own twist on humorous branding: 'We are number 1 in the number 2 business.' The company filed for a trademark on the slogan in 2005.

Some in the industry call septic-tank-pumper trucks, 'honey buckets,' Cristando said. He saw one pumper truck emblazoned with the words, 'Full of political promises.' While some folks would chuckle at scatological humor and toss it off, others find it disgusting and offensive. That human unpredictability is precisely what makes humor tricky in marketing.

'I've never had anybody that was offended by it,' Cristando said of the company slogan. 'If they were, I'd be like, really? It's all just good fun. We all do. We're all human.'

'Got poop' likely derived from the long-running campaign by the dairy industry, 'Got milk?'

Clover Sonoma, a Petaluma-based creamery that last year changed its name from Clover Stornetta, has its own long-running comedy campaign with Clo the Cow making comic twists and cringe-worthy puns from billboards along Highway 101.

Clover Sonoma launched Clo the Cow as a mascot in 1969, according to the company's published history spanning 100 years. Clo is a saucy bovine with a wry sense of humor and a hefty ego. She portrayed herself as Vincent Van Clo and Moona Lisa. In one billboard, she donned a black robe as a justice under the line, 'Supreme Quart.'

One of the cleverest signs that buoyed the brand famously was Clover's 1989 takeoff on a 1929 song written by Al Dubin and Joe Burke, initially sung by Nick Lucas then covered in lofty falsetto in 1968 by Tiny Tim. Clover's two-pun twist on the song title delighted drivers: 'Tip Clo through your two lips.'

Recent billboards carry less comic punch, such as meditating Clo in modified lotus position in a pasture with the words, 'Keep calm and dairy on.' The sign greets drivers as they go from Santa Rosa into Rohnert Park.

Clover's humor didn't always fly. In another billboard, according to an archived 1993 story in The New York Times, Clover appeared as Jacques Cowsteau wearing a wet suit and flippers as she descended to a treasure chest in the deeps. The Virginia-based Cousteau Society objected.

The society sued in federal court for $1.2 million in damages along with profits generated by the advertising. The company pulled Cowsteau off the billboard and replaced it with a weak pun that referenced nobody famous: 'Clo's friends.'

Cousteau Society's lawyer, Charlene Busch, was quoted in the Times story on behalf of Jacques Cousteau. 'He felt his personal integrity was attacked,' Busch said. 'It doesn't make any difference that Clo is funny. Clo sells milk. Jacques Cousteau does not.'

Santa Rosa attorney Barbara Gallagher, previously a partner in Anderson, Zeigler, Disharoon, Gallagher & Gray, and now of counsel to Spaulding McCullough & Tansil, represented Clover Stornetta in the case. Gallagher argued that Cowsteau was a joke, a parody, not an endorsement. 'It's the ultimate compliment,' she said in the Times.

Marcus Benedetti, CEO of Clover Sonoma since 2011, is the grandson of the company's founder. Clover ran more than 100 pun-driven Clo ads since the campaign launched, Benedetti said. 'Supreme Quart, I always liked that one,' he said.

The Cowsteau kerfuffle happened when he was young. 'I remember being a kid,' Benedetti said, 'the stress on my dad going through that whole drama. I think the person most offended was their lawyer,' he said of the Cousteau Society. Even Cousteau fans sought to assure the society that Clover was not trying to cash in on the famous French explorer of the sea.

'You have to understand the humor,' Benedetti said. 'Don't take yourself so seriously. They got a lot of backlash.' His recollection is that the society dismissed the lawsuit as soon as Clover pulled the ad.

To squeeze fresh humor from sources outside its ad agencies, the company holds Clo contests every few years. 'We got like 12,000 entries last time,' Benedetti said, 'a bunch of nuggets we have used.'

Daniel Judd of Rohnert Park won $5,000 in 2009 with his two-punned, 'Clo ahead, milk my day,' which rode on a billboard where Clo gussied up as Dirty Harry. The line, 'Go ahead, make my day' came originally from 1983 film 'Sudden Impact.' Tough-guy Harry Callahan draws his pistol and faces down a robber who holds a hostage in a diner.

For some marketing messages, humor has no place. The Engine Is Red works with United Way, for instance, on a campaign for prevention of heart disease. Humor would be inappropriate, said Denny.

Cowsteau, which prompted a lawsuit, is one level of pushback from humor. It gets far worse.

In 2013, Hyundai aired a commercial for its IX35 crossover in the U.K. touting clean emissions that depicted a botched carbon-monoxide suicide with a grim-faced bloke awaiting his demise in the driver's seat after affixing a hose from the tailpipe to a window. Not funny.

'We understand that some people may have found the IX35 video offensive,' Hundai Motor Europe said after pulling the ad. 'We are very sorry if we have offended anyone.' The IX35 is comparable to Hyundai's Tucson in the U.S. market.

In 2007, General Motors ran its version of a suicide ad during the Super Bowl showing an assembly-line robot, fired after dropping a little screw while building a car, committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention objected, and GM yanked the robot-suicide scene.

But Volkswagen ran what might have been a gloomy commercial about a funeral procession for a wealthy businessman, Max. We hear his somber voiceover as if dictating his will. He leaves his spendthrift wife $100, his slacker sons $50 in dimes, his greedy business partner, zilch. But to Nephew Harold, who often cheerily pronounced, 'Gee, it sure pays to own a Volkswagen,' Max leaves his entire fortune of $100 billion.

Done well, humor connects a business to its customers with remarkable power. Over nearly five decades, Clo has become the face of 100-year-old Clover Sonoma. 'That's the first image people have,' Benedetti said.

James Dunn covers business comedy, technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: or 707-521-4257.

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette