Zero minutes and fifteen seconds. Comedian Eddie Izzard hits the stage.
Zero minutes and thirty seconds. He apologizes for his delay, but he wasn’t sure about the hour of the show. First laughs.
One minute and four seconds. Izzard asks, mixing up French and English, how many people from each country are present. He proposes a “good fight” at the end. Everybody in the audience is laughing, already taken by his performance.
In those 64 seconds of stand-up, the comedian managed to synchronize the brain activity of the whole assembly using words as his only mode of persuasion. Scientists already knew that when two people start talking, their breathing patterns synchronize because of a “mirroring response.” Now, they have proven that the same applies to laughter, too.
Stand-up comedians like Eddie Izzard, Sugar Sammy, and Des Bishop perform in arenas around the world using multiple languages. They provide marketers with a great example of how that mirroring response can help them make more powerful connections with their audience.
Laugh and the world laughs with you, wrote American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox in her poem, “Solitude.” Laughter is contagious because the expression of strong emotions finds its way into other people’s minds. It is a form of communication that, according to psychology professor Robert Provine’s observational studies, is “30 times more frequent in social situations than solitary ones.” Similar to how music gives party goers cues to dance, the instinctive response in the brain to smiling or laughing helps us tune into the behavior of others.
And often, we’re not even laughing at jokes. Sometimes, says neuroscientist Sophie Scott, “you are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you’re part of the same group as them.”
Expressive cues like laughter facilitate social interactions and social processes. Like a stand-up comedy show. Or a well-tuned global content strategy.
The heroes in this story are Scott, Izzard, Bishop and Sammy. But every story has its villains. Let me introduce the bad guys here—that is, the slip-ups that comedians and marketers alike have when trying to produce humorous content for another culture.
Comedian Des Bishop founded the Flushing Comedy Club in New York to reach the neighborhood’s high population of Chinese-American residents. When Bishop first moved to China to learn Mandarin, he had to find out at his own expense the importance of tone. The family he lived with gave him a Chinese name, but he mispronounced it. For two months of his family and friends being too polite to correct him, he introduced himself as a vast ocean of….well, a profanity we’re not going to publish here, but if you’re curious, read his interview in The Economist.
As it happened to Mr. Bishop, there are dozens of examples of good intentions gone awry in cross-cultural marketing.
In early 2011, Kenneth Cole’s Twitter account Tweeted to promote its new spring collection: “Millions are in uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Those days, with the Arab Spring in full bloom, millions were in uproar in Cairo, and the joke turned into a gaffe.
I asked Pam Didner, a global content marketer, how to deal with humor in content marketing. She told me that humor works everywhere, especially “visuals such as print ads, digital images and videos”. She added that even if “everyone loves humor, it’s hard to scale. Don’t focus on how to scale humor, focus on how you can make your target audience laugh…and still get your message out.”
Didner also suggested a couple of great examples of humor that can succeed anywhere.
Differences in sense of humor from culture to culture are not that relevant to the conversation, as Izzard explains in his interview with PRI. Humor, as Izzard also believes, is universal.
People everywhere laugh exactly at the same times in his set. Whenever Izzard, referring to Caesar, says: “Did he ever think that he’d end up as a salad?” people usually begin to laugh at the word “salad.” Even in German, a language that places the verb at the end of the sentence, audience members laugh at “salad.”
Humor is a universal instinct—here’s more evidence:
Provable honesty and denial of aggression are the reasons why humor is perfect to laugh cultural differences off, like in this Pizza Hut video with Mikhail Gorbachev.
If you want to use humor effectively, make sure you are well understood everywhere.
Sugar Sammy grew up in Quebec speaking Punjabi, Hindi, French, and English. Now, he has a successful stand-up comedy show in all four languages.
It takes some more effort for marketers to do well with cultures different than their own, but it’s not impossible. The first reason is because the closer contact between cultures provides us with a larger stock of common references. Second, because cultures are not hermetic compartments. There is no such a thing as an “untranslatable” idea. Be explicit about cultural differences, like in the Pizza Hut example, instead of practicing unnecessary self-censure. Customers are individuals, not communities, and it’s important to consider that when addressing them.
If you need your audience to know how the Masai jumping-dance goes before you get to the punch line, tell them. Even better, show them, as the San Diego Wild Animal Park did in this TV spot.
One last thing. Remember that laughter is social, and content marketing doesn’t need to be hilarious. As professor Pinker puts it, “convivial humor is not particularly funny.” When marketers get to the point where they are able to crack bad private jokes with their public, that’s evidence that at the end of the story they will live happily together ever after.