The Self-Reference Effect: How Humor Can Transform Your Marketing Game

The Self-Reference Effect: How Humor Can Transform Your Marketing Game


The internet has sped up our lives in every way. We communicate faster, move information at a breakneck pace, and interact with the world in new and groundbreaking ways. These things are hard to track and difficult to notice if they form a part of our everyday lives. What is noticeable is the speed at which humor advances: how it has changed between different generations of internet users. 

No more apparent is this than in the evolution of memes. 

What was considered a good format in which an image can deliver a punchline three years ago is almost considered unfunny now. It’s important for brands who want to embrace humor to be aware of these rapidly changing trends before delivering a campaign that’s ham-fisted, and then either ignored or mocked by its target audience. 

So how can brands harness humor, specifically internet humor, to create a more believable and relatable personality? 

Let’s look at how internet humor functions in 2022, some brands that have gotten it wrong, and how you can create a successfully humorous element in your digital marketing.

Very Online People: How The Internet Changed Humor

Memes started out in the form of ‘image macros’: the mid-00s format where there would be a funny image framed by top and bottom text. The top text would set up the joke and the bottom would deliver the punchline. These simple jokes were the first example of a viral meme format, and had all the hallmarks of a traditional joke. These progressed into ‘relatable moment’ memes, where someone would describe a common situation that many people identified with. 

But as time went on, creators started to experiment with changing this format. What happens when the bottom text doesn’t provide a punchline? What happens when the image doesn’t seem to be associated with the joke? What happens when the joke doesn’t ‘make sense’?

This was when the three key elements of the modern meme were born: surrealism, parody (and self-parody) and anti humor. When brands can understand how to use these three tenets, they can propel themselves toward reaching and identifying with a younger, more online target market.

Being Cringe And How To Avoid it

In a 2021 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he discusses cereal brands and how their marketing campaigns have gone from being imaginative (including branded video games in their cereal boxes) to trying to replicate stale memes on Twitter. He gives examples of well-known US brands rehashing popular ‘relatable content’ style tweets, such as giving a list of ‘red flags’  that were identifying what makes a cereal bad. The criticism he leveled at them is common in online spaces, and it shows the one rule of humor in marketing in 2022. If you can’t land the joke, avoid making it.

This means consulting with people who have an awareness of online humor, conducting surveys, and staying abreast of current trends

There are several routes you can take to accomplish this, but first, let’s look at a case study of funny marketing that worked well.

Bud Light And The Art Of Collaboration

One of the humor-based marketing campaigns that gained traction in the last few years was Bud Light. To do this, they teamed up with a meme page admin who runs one of the most popular humor pages on Instagram. Together they created a campaign surrounding the joke name ‘Crispy Bois’. They created memes using sometimes relatable, sometimes bizarre situations in which one would ‘crack open a crispy one with the boys’. 

The joke landed and very quickly they had a lot of follows and reposts from people who wouldn’t have previously followed their online accounts. Before long, the joke had gone viral and soon they had amassed a much bigger following. It even has its own Urban Dictionary entry

As with any form of marketing, whether it’s a 5 minute commercial or printed flyers, it’s hard to judge how much this affected their sales, but that’s always a risk. What can be good with this kind of social media marketing is that even if the joke doesn’t land, you could still attract negative attention. 

Think of the 2017 Pepsi advert starring Kylie Jenner and the backlash it received. Pepsi was heavily criticized for co-opting the Black Lives Matter Movement’s publicity to create attention (a sin far greater than just a bad meme). But they got attention that in the end didn’t seem to hurt their bottom line.

How To Do Humor Right

So, if you want to do a humorous marketing campaign, how should you go about it? 

Using the above example provided by Bud Light, we can see they’ve already made one smart decision—collaborating with a creator. While ‘meme page admin’ might sound less glamorous than ‘influencer’, they still hold the keys to a large audience in a very similar way. 

Teaming up with a collaborator or influencer means you get to use their understanding of online humor. This provides you with a massive platform through which to disseminate the image you produce with them. If you’re unable to do this, turn to the people in your team who spend a lot of time online and ask them to provide you with references and insights into how you can nail a successfully funny campaign. 

If you have a social media manager, make sure it’s someone who’s young and in touch with online humor. Trends change quickly and what’s funny now may lose relevance within weeks. It’s important to conduct this kind of in-house research before you decide to move forward with an idea. And as a rule, it’s also always best to steer clear of any potentially sensitive topics or anything offensive. 

Getting canceled is not the aim of a humorous marketing campaign. Increasing traffic, boosting engagement, and encouraging conversations are what you’re after. 

Think It Through 

Humor can be a powerful tool to advance a brand’s online presence. Brands that have a funny personality or identity are seen as more human and relatable, and this promotes trust with a consumer base.

However, the use of humor requires a level of commitment and research that you might not think is necessary when looking at it from a removed perspective. But with the right process and planning, this doesn’t have to stand in your way.