Advertising seeks to appeal to our emotions, and one of the best ways to do that is by making us laugh. But humour is also one of the most difficult things to get right. Satire in particular can all too easily go wrong. Will people get that it’s satire? Will it be understood? Will those being satirised take it personally or feel offended? Will people laugh with you or at you?
And then there’s always the danger that people simply don't find it funny. A misjudged campaign can damage a brand’s reputation, leaving the joke on them. But done with a deft hand, satire can create such a strong connection with the public that the ad becomes a memorable campaign that goes viral. Here are seven of the best satirical adverts from the last decade that we think got it right. For more ads of all shapes and sizes, see our favourite print ads of all time.
01. Ikea takes a bite at Apple
Big brands often steer clear of satire and will rarely risk raising heckles by satirising other companies, but Ikea has had a ball with it, and set social media ablaze in the process. Its social media posts were widely shared when it provided guidance on how to distinguish a genuine IKEA tote bag from a $2,000 Balenciaga “forgery”.
But it's the brand’s satirising of Apple that has been particularly hilarious. It mercilessly spoofed Apple’s tech evangelism in an ad designed by BBH to launch the 2015 IKEA catalogue as a novel “bookbook”. Shot against a white background like an Apple product demo, “chief design guru” Jorgen Eghammer expounds features such as no lag when turning the pages. "Once in a while, something comes along that changes the way we live, a device so simple and intuitive, using it feels almost familiar," he says.
Ikea was at it again in 2017 when it piggybacked the launch of the iPhone8 to remind us of its wireless charging furnishings using tongue-in-cheek reworkings of Apple slogans, including switching “This changes everything” to “This charges everything”. And then there was also that cheese grater ad. Genius.
02. Outnet satirises its own industry
By 2017, the social media influencer industry was ripe for satirising. Net a Porter’s online discount fashion store Outlet got there just at the right time. Pretty Influential was a six-episode series of short-form mockumentaries that follows two wannabe influencers (comedy writers and actors Sara and Erin Foster) and their attempts to get behind the scenes at New York Fashion Week. It was a prescient move into short-form video advertising and it won viewers over by knowingly poking fun at the fashion industry’s (and the brand's own) use of social media influencers. The brand acknowledged its own complicity in the industry by following up with 'shop the look' calls to action after the videos.
Another fashion brand may have feared alienating influencers themselves, but for a discount brand, it hit the right note and brought a welcome break from the earnestness in fashion advertising. “I think you should prioritise this because I’m pretty influential,” Erin says when she calls the hotel concierge to ask for someone to be sent up to check who’s knocking at her door.
03. Nature Rx launches a cure-all prescription medicine
Satire works when your audience shares your appraisal of what’s being sent up. In the US, prescription medicines are regularly promoted in formulaic and cliched television advertising. Everyone could appreciate the joke then in this hilarious spot-on pastiche of these ads' stock content of bike rides and walks on the beach. "Tired, irritable, stressed out? Try Nature." Additional disclaimers include "Results may vary. Golf is not nature," and "Warning: Nothing in Nature is clickable."
The three-part series of ads was produced by Nature RX, a grassroots movement that aims to raise awareness of research showing that spending more time in nature improves your health and wellbeing and leads to making better environmental decisions.
Viewers found it refreshing to see science about the benefits of nature presented through humour rather than through infographics or quotes from experts. The fact that the ad made people laugh ensured its serious message remained much more memorable.
04. Royal Jordanian trolls Trump
🍊 ⛔️✈️️ #USElections pic.twitter.com/yBDVO2w3gbNovember 8, 2016
Politics is a dangerous subject to satirise owing to the risk of alienating a large group of potential customers, but Royal Jordanian found a victim that few in their target audience had sympathy for. The Middle Eastern airline took to social media on US election day in 2016 to mock the Republican candidate’s proposed ban on travellers from several Muslim countries with the phrase, “Just in case he wins, travel to the US while you’re still allowed to.”
The company turned a business threat into an opportunity and showed that using satire could compensate for a low budget to help a little-known airline get noticed between deep-pocketed regional giants like Emirates and Qatar Airways. The original ad was shared ferociously, reaching 450 million people and winning awards for agency Memac Ogilvy.
The campaign later followed up with a message altered from "Ban voyage" to "Bon voyage" after a court overturned Trump’s travel ban. The airline was also quick to react again when the US banned electronics on flights from several Arab airports, offering a list of "12 things to do on a 12-hour flight with no laptop or tablet". The satire in the ads won over customers by sharing their own frustration at something that was beyond their control in a lighthearted way. The airline said it saw a 50 per cent increase in bookings as a result.
05. Duolingo brings pushy push notifications into the physical world
Laughing at others can be funny, but laughing at yourself even more so. A little self-deprecating humour can be a great way to win customer trust, or to win a little forgiveness for any minor failures. For months, users of the language learning app Duo Lingo had been sharing memes that sent up the app’s use of persistent, pushy notifications that sometimes almost tried to shame users into taking their language classes.
On April Fools’ Day 2019, the company itself joined in with an ad that announced the launch of a new premium feature. To ensure users could no longer ignore the apps notifications, Duo, the brand's green owl mascot, would materialise in your office, gym, or even while you’re out on a date to provide a "subtle reminder" to study.
The ad showed that the company was aware of users' experiences of its app and was able to laugh at itself, and demonstrated that a self-aware jab at a product's foibles can humanise a brand. Duo Lingo reported a surge in followers on Facebook and Twitter as a result of the campaign.
06. UNISON highlights careworkers’ conditions
Humour can also be a way to approach serious issues in a disarming way that can make audiences more likely to engage. The trade union UNISON used the winning combination of a familiar celebrity sending up their own work to satirise goverment policy and spur people into signing a petition demanding better working conditions for care workers. The ad by London agency Don’t Panic had the original presenter of the interior design TV series 60 Minute Makeover reprise her role but with the original 60 minutes cut to 15. Former Brookside actress Claire Sweeney sends up her own energetic, chirpy commentary as a care worker has just 15 minutes to help an elderly man out of bed, bathe and dress him and prepare his medication.
A more earnest approach might have made people look away, but humour helped connect to a wider public and sneak in a serious message without obscuring its urgency and clear call to action.
07. Chipotle takes on the entire agribusiness
Brands will often try to use satire without starting a war by making a direct attack on the victim of the joke, but if the brand strategy involves highlighting ethical principles, then picking a fight can make sense. Chipotle, the US-based Mexican restaurant chain, had already sought to show itself as a promoter of small-scale sustainable farming. It truly threw down the gauntlet when it directly attacked agribusiness in a full-blown satirical comedy series of four 30-minute episodes for video streaming service Hulu.
The series Farmed and Dangerous involves the discovery and launch of Animoil, described as "the biggest improvement in agriculture since genetic growth hormones", but which leads to "cows exploding all over the internet". The audacious branded series serves as a lesson in ecosystem marketing. Rather than selling the Chipotle product, it makes a statement as part of the brand's wider 'Food with Integrity' campaign. It attracted heavy criticism from the Cattle Network and other agricultural associations because of its negative portrayal of an entire industry, so it can be wise to use satire only if you have the time and resources to be able to respond to the criticism. "Those people died of eating, not of starving. That's progress!" Ray Wise’s character declares at the end of the trailer for the series.