Bolder Thinking Blog

Using humor in TV ads: Proceed with caution

June 13th, 2019 | Rachel Arndt

Credit card issuers are using humor in television commercials more and more, positioning their brands as carefree and funny. While this technique itself is nothing new to the advertising world, it is new for financial services.

In credit card issuers’ TV spots, absurdity now reigns supreme, with hokey setups allowing companies to make otherwise dry information more compelling. However, as the approach becomes more common, it also has potential downsides, such as brands blending together or appearing gimmicky.

Capital One

Capital One stands out with its ads that brought together Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, and Charles Barkley. While the celebrities caught viewers’ attention, the ads, which ran during March Madness, said little about the brand itself.


Using spokespeople can be an effective way to capture attention in short TV ads. Chase, for example, featured comedian Kevin Hart in its Freedom Unlimited commercials. The spot exemplifies spokesperson messaging, as it shows Hart actually using the Chase card. However, Chase’s choice to run the ad was risky, since it first appeared right after a backlash arose over Kevin Hart’s anti-gay jokes.

Tapping celebrity spokespeople can be risky in general since they have lives outside of commercials. Insurance companies have avoided the risk of scandal by creating their own spokespeople (and spokesanimals)—namely, Progressive’s Flo and Geico’s gecko. While celebrity spokespeople can succeed with borrowed interest, eventually so can original spokespeople, given enough compelling ads featuring them. Original spokespeople also allow companies to establish their own unique identities that don’t depend on celebrities who can get into trouble.


Another effective way to capture attention is to use repeating premises, such as Progressive’s parents-jokes ads and Discover’s “We treat you like you treat you” commercials. Discover’s spots show customers talking to their customer-service doppelgängers, using absurdity to communicate understanding.

So what?

No matter how brands use humor, there’s one shared requirement: Companies must make their humor-backed brand identities enticing enough to get consumers not only to laugh but also to act.

Rachel Arndt

Rachel Arndt

Rachel Arndt is a Senior Research Analyst, interpreting cross-channel marketing and consumer trends with a focus in telecom.