Humor in a Crisis: Medicinal or Mean?

Should brands use humor in a crisis? Today is April Fool’s Day, a day brands typically let their hair down and have some fun. How much fun will there be this year? Good question. 

There’s a lot to the old cliche that laughter is the best medicine. But, when people are getting sick, dying, and losing their jobs, is humor medicinal or insensitive meanness? 

Like most questions, the answer is, “it depends.” It depends on the humor’s source, focus, and context. Who’s making the joke? Is it an individual or an organization? Is it at someone else’s expense or, is it more universal? From a branding perspective, the more important question is, “Does it align with your brand attributes?” 

 At the time of this writing, we could not find any good or bad examples of a brand’s attempt at humor during the coronavirus crisis, except for this:

SOURCE: New York Post

Needless to say, the bar was severely criticized and stopped the campaign in short order. 

However, as the shelter in place order continues, more brands are likely to think about humor in a crisis. If your brand strategy gives you room for humor, and you want to try to help people feel better through some laughs, please tread carefully! 

As with humor presented even in the best of times, do not produce it in order to “go viral.” That’s one of the fastest ways to ensure it does not.

To that end, here are some suggestions to keep in mind: 

  1. Keep it about shared experiences, such as being locked up with our families or running out of Netflix shows to binge-watch. 
  2. Stay away from self-deprecation, unless you can do it in a way that humanizes your brand.  
  3. Keep it simple and universal. Instead of drawn-out parodies or insider jokes, quickly get to a point everyone can enjoy.
  4. As with humor presented even in the best of times, do not produce it in order to “go viral.” That’s one of the fastest ways to ensure it does not.
  5. Finally, always end with a positive note that makes it clear you’re not tone-deaf to the world and its challenges. 

If you’re uncertain about using humor in a crisis, then don’t do it. Leave it to the comedians and former class clowns of the world to do that instead. 

For more on the role of humor in touch times, check out this piece on Psychology Today by Michelle Kerulis, M.Ed. Why Do People Laugh During a Crisis? The Philosophy of Humor


Feeling nostalgic? Check out this two-part Brand Banter we did the use of humor with Erika Alter in November of 2017!  

Spencer Brenneman, LLC
© 2020

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