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  • Writer's pictureShweta Singh

From Ayappa K to Tom Kuntz: Exploring Humour in Advertising

Being funny isn’t easy.

Being funny in a 30-second advertisement? Definitely isn't any easier.

Yet, humour sells. The most successful and longest-running ad campaigns are the ones which infuse humour in their approach to advertising.

Laughing is cathartic and to be able to elicit it while subtly selling a product gives it the power to win the hearts and minds of the audience. But is there such a thing as a formula to making a funny ad? In the world of advertising, there are few such geniuses who have perfected this craft and nailed the format - down to the tee.

In this blog, we will look at some of such directors who have revolutionised the advertising game, one laugh at a time.

Tom Kuntz

One of the most talented and sought-after directors with a forte for humor in advertising is the American filmmaker - Tom Kuntz.

He is the mind behind Old Spice’s, ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ - the hilarious ad which went on to win several awards including a Cannes Lion and Emmy for ‘Commercial of the Year.’

His quirky and weird sense of humour has proven to win commercial success across brands and different products. The most unimaginable and surrealistic scenarios form the main plot of a typical Tom Kuntz commercial - whether it’s a chocolate man or a post apocalyptic world with no apps, the outlandish ideas subvert the audience’s expectations and make the ad memorable and timeless.

Tom’s career arc is just as interesting as his works. After graduating from the prestigious university of MIT (the American equivalent of our IIM), Kuntz, unlike the rest of his peers, wanted to become a DJ. He wanted to travel the world and explore his individualistic path which led him to join the Peace Corps - an organization where volunteers provided community based services. Here, while building dams and restoring broken houses, Kuntz met Maguire, another volunteer who would go on to become his long-term creative collaborator.

After the selfless humanitarian services, Tom Kuntz turned into a rockstar. Together with Maguire, he formed an electronic band called Natuurkunde which translated to Science Class in Dutch. As Natuurkunde toured across Europe, Tom became exposed to the advertising industry and a couple of years later, the duo started working at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York.

The journey from being an MIT graduate to a rockstar and then making award-winning ads sounds like a plot straight from the movies, but that really was Tom Kuntz life and his unique lived experiences certainly colored his style of making commercials.

After working as an art director for Kirshenbaum, Tom started working for MTV in the late 90s making hilarious ad spots for their Award shows and other series. In an interview, Tom talks about his experience working at MTV where he was able, “Do what we like to do most: put things in front of people that they can’t believe they are seeing.”

The innate experimental streak that drives Kuntz passion and bold style of commercial filmmaking has a very collaborative and spontaneous approach, one where, “Everyone meets, hashes out a theme, and then starts writing scripts – like one hundred scripts. We meet again and boil them down to a few spots, but even those spots keep changing until the day we shoot them.” (Interview)

Despite not being from a film school, Kuntz believes his experience working in the industry taught him a lot more than a film school would – a great advice for anyone who shares the same hesitancy of wanting to start out in advertising without any past background.

Now that we know the life of Tom Kuntz a lot better, we can better understand how his brain spews the brilliant works –

One of Kuntz’s most popular ad campaigns is Old Spice’s ‘Smell Like a Man’ - I’m sure we all recognise this one. Directed by Tom Kuntz, this hilarious spot went on to win several awards and set a precedent for the kind of craziness that can be packed in 30 seconds.

“Speechless,” is how he describes the reaction of the client when they first saw the ad. While a client’s happiness is certainly important, it is made much more worthwhile when the popularity actually translates into sales. With over billions of impressions, the ad helped spike up the Old Spice sales by 27 percent in just six months!

Usually advertisements take inspiration from pop-culture, but with Tom Kuntz, his ads become pop-culture.

Another one of Tom Kuntz’s classics - the Axe’s Dark Temptation ad follows the hilarious premise of a young man who turns into a chocolate man after spraying the new Axe. What ensues is a carnal fight amongst beautiful women just throwing themselves at this weird chocolate-figure. As irresistible as chocolate, this ad directed by Tom Kuntz went on to win a Gold Lion at Cannes in 2008.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt about Tom Kuntz so far is that he loves taking things to the next level, and the level above that and above…until we’re so far out into the realm of absurdity that while watching his ads you can’t help but let out a hearty laugh.

The witty scripts, the punchlines, the hook can work only so far as the director is able to visually bring them forth. In Apple’s ‘Final’ spot - the execution of the idea of an app developer who accidentally causes an Appocalypse (see what they did there?) after mindlessly unplugging the server is just downright hilarious. From the minute details of a man crushing candy to the bigger, grander car stunts, Kuntz style and vision has the ability to elevate a very simple gag into a commercial art.

"There's no way to articulate why my sensibility works. I know how to do what's right for me." - Tom Kuntz

A kicker at the Superbowl, this ad spot for Pringles takes the widely relatable experience of getting your hand stuck in the can and turns it into a beautifully hilarious film about the journey of living with the can stuck in.

Directed by Kuntz, this ad is again based on a simple insight which is then turned into something much bigger, and as audiences we love to see it all play out. The bold experimentative approach breaks the traditional mould or conventional way ads are done. This determination to break the pattern, to always surprise the audience is an approach that Tom takes seriously:

“That's the rush I get. When you give audiences something that they've always wanted but that has always been held back.”

With over hundreds of commercials directed by him, some of my favourites also include:

Citreon Baby

Hahn Superdry - Pioneering Beering

Curious to know more about Tom Kuntz? You can check out more of his works here:

James Rouse

The second-most awarded commercial director is UK-based James Rouse, whose eccentric ads have won him several accolades including Cannes Gold Lions, Creative Circle Golds and many more.

Image Source: Campaign Live

If there’s an ad which perfectly summarizes his style of making commercials it would be his very first project which was an ad for Trojan condoms. Now, we all know how easy it is to find humour and creativity in sex (at least when it comes to advertising) but this viral ad takes the route of an unassuming way of advertising, no sultry music, no half-clad actors, if anything it is the complete opposite of how condoms are advertised.

Watch the ad here.

When asked in an interview about his experience directing this ad, Rouse tells the story of how he offered to write the script for free as long as he got to direct the ad. While casting real athletes instead of actors, there were bound to be challenging moments;

“I had to deal with a Hungarian weightlifter who didn’t know he was going to be naked and had to talk him down from walking off the set. I also had to inspect some poor woman’s merkin. I looked at it for about half-a-second and said it was fine.” (source)

After headstarting his directorial career with the Trojan spot, at the age of 30, everything finally clicked for Rouse. Before this, he worked as a copywriter, an art director, a creative director and even a salesman for Pepsi! His interesting career arc led him to many opportunities, experiences and people which further fuelled his creative spirit.

“If you’re passionate about something, then you have a better chance of succeeding at it.”

One of Rouse’s funniest commercials has to be Harvy Nichols’, ‘sorry, I spent it on myself’ spot. In advertising, it is quite rare for the product for itself to be funny but for Christmas, Harvey Nichols, UK’s luxury fashion brand, had the brilliant idea of making a range of (real) unconventional gifts - from toothpicks to paper clips, these range of gifts were made so on Christmas you could spend more on yourself. So when Rouse had the opportunity to write and direct this unconventional Christmas ad, he jumped at the chance.

The humour in Rouse’s commercials is derived from the characters. It is his peculiar observations that take his writing style up a notch.

“I wrote every character – why they’re there, why they bought the gift they gave, what the receiver was hoping to get,” explains Rouse. “All the dialogue comes from having invented these families.”

Beyond the observational style, the comedy also works because it feels genuine. The sense of realness comes about through the improvisational approach. In his widely successful spot for Marmite, Rouse admits to working without a script and asking the actors to also improvise their performance. But sometimes Rouse’s ads do not even require any dialogues, the strong characterisation is enough to carry the whole show.

In 2013, VW’s brief was simple: to make a spot about their car’s latest technology that saves money by cutting the engine whenever the car stops. Ditching the script and relying on casting the perfect baby and dad, the resulting ad shows a universally relatable video of a father driving around his baby to put him to sleep:

Some of his other works that you ought to check out:

In the end, James Rouse, in his typical wry Brit-styled humour and dedicated passion for directing, promises every single work of his to be a complete package - one that makes you laugh and buy the product!

You can check out more of Rouse’s works here: Rabbit Content

Ayappa KM

Recently, a director who has been swooping in all the awards and audience’s love is Ayappa KM. If the name sounds familiar to you, you might recognise him as the directorial wizard behind the popular CRED ads.

A partner and director at Early Man Films, Ayappa, like many of us grew up watching ads of Prasoon and Piyush Pandey and he loved them so much that eventually, he ended up making a career out of it. His appreciation for ads was an exception in a world where everyone else hated commercials, his mom included.

Whether it's creative laziness or playing it safe, advertising had reached a level of monotony that Ayappa was hell-bent on breaking. Arm-in-arm with humour, this director paved the way of new-age advertising in India.

But what exactly is this new-age of advertising? Are they simply a bunch of buzzwords using “memes” to be “#relatable”? Or is there something deeper? For Ayappa, new-age advertising is advertising that takes risks, one that tests your skills as an artist, one that truly connects with your audience.

“When you push the limits of your craft, you push the world forward, and that in turn may serve as an inspiration for someone else.”

When you don’t push such limits, you inevitably breed mediocre work. The famous CRED campaign - ‘Not Everyone Gets It’ makes a subtle satirical jab at this very approach to lazy advertising where advertisers tend to mask run-of-the-mill work behind the clout of big celebrities.

But what really got Ayappa’s mastery to the spotlight was Rahul Dravid’s ad for CRED. Bringing in comparison - especially when it's a contrasting one, is a sureshot way to ensure laughter. Whether it’s the very polite Rahul Dravid losing his cool and having a breakdown or the don-like Jackie Shroff doing zumba, the unexpected contrast conceptually and visually characterises a unique narrative device in comedy.

But limiting his brilliance to just CRED is a serious dishonour to his varied body of works across genres, formats and brands.

For Ambuja Cement, the idea of strength is brought about in a hilarious and memorable way. Starring the Great Khali, the subtlety of comedy, the semi-documentary look & feel of the ad is incredibly honest in its approach. But beyond a great idea and script, Ayappa also stresses the importance of welcoming creative accidents - and making the most out of them.

Towards the last few seconds of the Ambuja ad, you’ll notice Khali’s eyes nervously darting around as if seeking a response after a shot - this was an intentional choice. In his TED talk, Ayappa reveals how they kept the cameras rolling long after the cut to capture the momentary realness which broke the fourth wall and made the ad even more interesting.

Ayappa’s offbeat directing style relies on one more thing - casting. While the majority of Indian ads are saturated with conventionally good-looking people, Ayappa’s commercials star “strange” looking people (quoted from his TED talk) who are really just normal people like you and me. This again, stands apart from the variety of ads made in India where we only tend to see fair-skinned people living in fancy houses. This is far from the actual reality for the majority of the viewers and Ayappa advocates defying such rules in advertising.

Here are some stills from his work for MTV Beats where we can see how his unique casting works in favor of the overall storytelling of the advertisement.

Credits: Earlyman Films

One of Ayappa’s more recent directorial pursuits includes Disney+ Hotstar’s campaign called Siway SRK featuring none other than Shah Rukh Khan. Written by the same team as CRED’s advertisements, we once again see how unexpected situations bring out comedy. In this campaign, we see how by using a celebrity who is not a part of the OTT platform, we get to know all the celebrities who are.

In true Ayappa style, the comedy is subversive, the timing is impeccable, and the performances are convincing.

Self-deprecating humor - the ability to laugh at oneself or sportingly take jabs at your cost, always proves to be effective in advertising especially when celebrities are involved.

You can check out more of Ayappa’s stuff here: EARLYMAN FILM

Vivek Kakkad

If there’s someone who understands how humor really works in advertising, Vivek Kakkad is definitely one of them. Having directed over hundred commercials till date, his work is expansive and witty, always punched in with a joke.

With a strong script, inclusive cast and top-notch setting, the resulting commercial is one that will stay with you long after.

From Maggi to Fastrack, IDBI Bank to Pepsi, Kakkad has made commercials for all kinds of products, worked with the biggest celebrities of our industry and continues to deliver the finest commercials we’ve seen.

Although much of Vivek’s personal background is elusive, his works speak for themselves. Let’s look at some of his best works to better understand his directorial style.

Nitesh Tiwari, executive creative director, Leo Burnett describes him,

“Kakkad gets the subtlety in a performance beautifully out of a script. He can take a simple script and turn it into a memorable film.”

His Early Works

Back in 2010, about 12 years ago Kakkad did a couple of regional ads for Uninor. An annoyed boyfriend speaks to us about a fairly relatable problem - talktime. What makes the ad funny is the brilliant acting by the protagonist and of course, the breaking of the fourth wall. Kakkad’s directorial execution ticks off all the boxes for effective advertising - quirky performance, relatable insight, and a punch of humour, all while highlighting new information about the product.

In many instances, humor is derived from the absurdity of a situation and Kakkad does so for Alpenliebe’s Archimedes spot.

When you’re bored out of your mind reading the water displacement theory, don’t be surprised when Greek mathematician Archimedes suddenly appears in your bathtub. In this ludicrous yet hilarious plot for Alpenliebe, Kakkad breaks the clutter with his unique approach to advertising a lollipop.

Many of his previous commercials adopted the breaking-the-fourth wall approach, an effective technique to catch and hold the viewer’s attention. Check out this commercial for Tata Sky’s Active English feature:

However, this isn’t done in an ‘in-your-face’ approach. You don’t feel pestered or annoyed as the ad rolls. The humour is subtle, yet memorable - with characters who feel like real human beings rather than actors. In an ad for Maggi’s new local flavours, Kakkad brings out the pan-India feel with its inclusive cast of characters. In the same set-up, with just three actors, the commercial effectively incites humour from its subtle script.

Here, we see exactly how Kakkad brings out the subtlety from the scripts. There is no punchline, no over-the-top gags. Yet, we find ourselves sharing a light-hearted laughter at the little banter between the friends.

But limiting Kakkad’s flair for simplicity and subtlety is unfair. When the script calls for a grander production, more elaborate performances - Kakkad delivers effectively. For Tata Sky, Ogilvy conceptualized the commercial, ‘Prison Break’ which was directed by Vivek Kakkad.

The premise of the ad centers around the two insights:

  • How every Indian stops whatever they’re doing during an India-Pakistan match

  • Not everyone has time to watch TV

What happens when a few prisoners get a hold of this? Of course, they plan to escape on the night of the match - but do they succeed or fail?

The craft of ad filmmaking is to perfectly integrate the brand messaging with storytelling. Prison Break is a perfect example of that. Shot in Hungary, with an international cast, this three minute and half ad is nothing less than a movie.

While the first-half of the ad grips you with the prisoners planning the escape, the second-half is the kicker - to their dismay, they get caught while escaping.

“What kind of Indian doesn’t watch the India-Pakistan match?”

“A hard-working Indian.”

Cut to: End Copy - Tata Sky+ HD with Recording - For Those Who Don’t Have Time to Watch TV.

Recent Works

During his long-haul in advertising, Kakkad’s work has evolved into finer and more hilarious commercials. The overall look and feel of his commercials which have an international appeal is a trademark characteristic of Kakkad’s work which can be seen in the ‘Pepsi Thi Pi Gaya’ ad.

Set in a locker room in Romania, the ad follows two NFL players who compete in an arm-wrestling tournament for the last Pepsi. The friendly banter turns into a not-so-friendly competition, with all their teammates cheering them on. Enters a guy, who unbeknownst to what they’re fighting for, cheers along and goes on to chug that one last Pepsi. The expressions, the build up, the irony of it all - makes it the typical Kakkad’s masterpiece.

When not working with international actors, Kakkad turns our Bollywood actors into hilarious caricature characters. The MakeMyTrip campaign featuring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt plays off the banter between their two characters - Happy and Pinky. Here, while the plot is product-centric, the characters do the heavy lifting when it comes to infusing humor and balancing out the scripted-feel of the ad.

Some other great commercials that you ought to check out:

Overall, Vivek Kakkad’s works span across decades, genres and products yet at its core, he is able to offer something new, something different each time.

You can check out all his works on his YouTube channel here.

Final Words…

Now that we’ve seen some of the best humour and film directors and their best works, we’ve come to understand how we can leverage humour in advertising to our advantage. As a cathartic expression for the audience, comedy benefits the memorability and relevance of the ad and/or the product, so the next time you wish to enhance your advertising pitch, script or the final outcome - don’t forget to incorporate humour!


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