10 witty ads that will make you smile

Discover the full range and power of wit as a creative tool in these brilliant advertising campaigns.

From billboard advertising to print ads, creating a marketing campaign that grabs people's attention is no easy feat, which is why a little ingenious thinking is required.

A Smile in the Mind is the definitive book on 'witty thinking' – intelligent humour, ideas and playfulness – in design and branding. First published in 1996, the original edition by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart became a seminal text for a generation of designers. Twenty years later, the book has been extensively revised and updated for the next generation by new co-authors Greg Quinton and Nick Asbury.

Greg Quinton

Here Greg Quinton, Executive Creative Director at The Partners, picks ten of his favourite witty ads that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

01. Nivea night cream campaign

Nivea night cream campaign

Nivea produces the goods with a this beautifully simple shot
  • TBWA\NEBOKO, The Netherlands, 2005

A clean product shot with a poetic twist. As the lid glides off the Nivea jar, the white creamy texture is revealed, taking the shape of a moon – a miracle of nature, waiting to be discovered. Beautifully simple, naturally minimal.

02. Good Hair Day?

The wind of the train plays havoc with this model's hair in this clever digital campaign for Apolosophy
  • Åkestam Holst/ Stopp Family, Sweden, 2014

Wit has the power of conveying a message in a single hit, with an artful combination of words and pictures. One of my favourites is ‘Blowing in the Wind’, a digital campaign for Swedish haircare brand Apolosophy. Displayed in subways, it shows models with great hair but as the trains arrive the rush of air causes havoc with their carefully managed tussles. Of course it's a simple and clever bit of interactivity but the timing and the context makes it a joyful shared experience. If only I had hair.

03. A small campaign with big potential

Clever advertising campaigns: Clavin

This limited edition packaging does all the talking for erectile dysfunction remedy Clavin
  • Ogilvy & Mather, Czech Republic, 2012

The ambiguity of wit may not seem a natural fit for health ads. But some invite controversy to promote an important message, bringing a smile often to the times when you need it most. The design that makes the pill stand out is created for a younger audience, turning function into fun. Literally.

04. Food for thought

Clever advertising campaigns: Pret A Manger

Pret A Manger's playful take on food is now instantly recognisable by its millions of loyal customers
  • Pret A Manger / Balloon Dog, 2011

There are always at least two elements in a witty idea – whether the wit is visual or verbal. Combining two-in-one is the mainstay of intelligent humour, giving the viewer the pleasure of recognising the likeness between two things that are different. Pret A Manger's playful take on food – Monkey Coconut Water, Egg preserving its modesty or a potato fish for its Seas Salt chips – is now instantly recognisable by its millions of loyal customers and provides daily creative sustenance.

05. Tickled pink

Clever advertising campaigns: Tickled pink

This witty poster challenges the viewer to reappraise the norm
  • Gay & Lesbian Film Festival: Pink Days. Lernert & Sander, The Netherlands, 2010

Another great example of juxtaposition of the opposites is when one seemingly incompatible element is playfully swapped with another. The fusion of two produces the typical response to wit – the spark of recognition and surprise. Joining two very different classic Hollywood posters of Travolta and Humphrey Bogart into one. Challenging the viewer to reappraise the norm, the stereotype and enjoy the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in Amsterdam.

06. I can’t you out of my head

  • McCann Erickson, Melbourne, Australia, 2012

Like any good teacher, intelligent humour can communicate complex information without making you work hard for it. Usefully, sometimes it can save lives. Dumb Ways to Die, the public safety campaign for Metro Trains in Melbourne, is complete with a catchy song you just can't forget and endearingly doomed characters that meet their ends by multiple witty and quite charming ways… eventually including around trains. Amazingly, 130m YouTube views would indicate that the world is a bit safer near trains.

07. Bronx Zoo

A powerful and memorable campaign for Bronx Zoo
  • Bronx Zoo. Y&R New York, USA, 2006

Intelligent humour invites the viewer to question – and doubt – his/her preconceptions of the world around us. In this campaign for Bronx Zoo the city and wildlife are combined, with urban textures playing starring roles, appropriated to advertise the zoo's inhabitants. A powerful and memorable way that makes you stop and take notice of your environment both global and local.

08. WWF Exhaust Emissions Impact

A powerful idea for a dirty problem
  • WWF, Ogilvy & Mather Beijing, China, 2007

Wit has an enormous capacity to make the familiar seem new again, bringing a sense of urgency to what's important. Ogilvy & Mather's Beijing campaign for the WWF uses a car's exhaust fumes to fill up a huge black smoggy cloud. No words required for this impressive symbol of environmental impact – a powerful idea for a dirty problem.

09. NHS Trust Scotland

Brutally direct and in the one voice the audience might listen too – their own
  • NHS Glasgow and Partners/ GRP, UK, 2007 In 2007

NHS trusts in Scotland produced a 'True or false?' book in the style of traditional Ladybird hardbacks. The content was anything but traditional, and explored the questions most commonly circulating amongst teens aged 12-16… if and when to have sex. If the format disarms with old school charm, the content smashes you in the face. Brutally direct and in the one voice the audience might listen too – their own. This piece makes you laugh and wince at the same time.

10. Hans Brinker Hotels

Hans Brinker Hotels...'Proudly ignoring standards since 1970'
  • Hans Brinker hotel, Kessels Kramer and Anthony Burrill, The Netherlands/ UK, 1996.

Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam took a highly unconventional approach to advertising its rooms to travellers, openly calling itself 'The Worst Hotel In The World'. This is probably not entirely true, but the self-depreciating strategy of the hotel that – and I quote – 'Couldn't care less, but will try' – clearly works, continuing, 'Proudly ignoring standards since 1970'…now spreading them in Lisbon!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Quinton is executive creative director at design agency The Partners.

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