How Do You Market Meaning?

Why is so much advertising creative driven by comedy, rather than tragedy? Is it because agencies want to associate their clients’ brands with positive messaging? Or maybe funny is easier to craft than sad?

Whatever the case, from the first Got Milk TV spot, to today’s web-native masterpieces like Subservient Chicken, advertising in recent years is most often driven by comedy. But what of the whole notion of “sadvertising” — ad creative that’s built on drama, rather than kitschy tongue and cheek?

I had the pleasure of talking with Gary Koepke the other day. He’s one of the founders of Modernista!, the independent Boston-based agency with clients like (PRODUCT)RED. And he asked if there’s a way to inspire young people through advertising. To make them feel more than just slight discomfort when a homeless man asks for lose change on a street corner. Or to persuade them to see more than just statistics when they hear that 15,000 people die from AIDS every day in Africa.


Have you seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell yet? Because it’s an incredible look at the subtle difference between tragedy and comedy. Ferrell is an absolute comedic ninja in movies like Old School. And yet his acting style works in a film playing an IRS auditor who knows he’s about to die. The film explores this notion that the character’s eminent demise brings meaning to his life. He stops living a drab existence, and falls in love.

The movie asks what lots of people have: why are all the “great” works of literature stories where people die at the end? Which is similar to what I’m asking now: why has almost all great advertising been driven by comedy?

If gutsy agencies like Modernista! are going to take the challenge of marketing meaning – of motivating a whole generation to fight for a cause — the norm of witty, socially hip ad creative might not fly. Because these issues reside in soulful place, and the creative needs to speak to that.