The Rise of Absurdity in Marketing: How humor can be the key to audience resonance in a crisis-stricken world

What do recent pop culture moments like Bo Burnham’s comically cynical Netflix special Inside, Duolingo’s unhinged TikToks, and Burger King’s “Ch’king Nightmare” TV spot have in common? Main character syndrome may come to mind (who doesn’t like feeling like the star of the show every once in a while), but underlying it is the increasingly obvious cultural lean towards absurdity. At a societal moment in which feelings of fear, loss and confusion are so strong, it’s no surprise to see Americans—and the brands pursuing them—leaning on humor to cope and overcome.

The relationship between tragedy and comedy

Absurdity is defined as both “the extremely silly or ridiculous” and “the state or condition in which human beings exist in an irrational and meaningless universe.”
If comedy and tragedy did a collab, absurdity would be the result. Absurdity filters the tragic realities of suffering through a satirical lens that brings just enough humor into a situation to make it bearable. The more challenging the situation, the more humor is needed to make it palatable—hence the level of absurdity we see in pop culture today.

In the last two years alone, the American consumer has been faced with the compounded chaos of a pandemic, climate change–driven extreme weather crises, increasing violence, and political and social instability of all kinds. With so much at stake and so little within our individual control, one of the best adaptations we’ve developed is the ability to reduce the perceived threat by diminishing it with humor chaotic enough to match. Everything from the funny TikToks and silly memes we share with our friends to the ironic language we use in our everyday lives is reflective of this intense need for comic relief. As audiences’ approaches to humor intensify, brands working hard to stay relevant are seeking opportunities to join their audiences in leaning towards increased absurdity and comedy in their marketing strategies.

How brands are embracing absurdity

There is no shortage of brands connecting with their customers through absurdity, but each brand must approach humorous content strategically to ensure it is appropriate for their audience and for the platform on which they share it

One great example of how platform and audience impact content is language-learning app Duolingo’s approach to TikTok. TikTok is a booming platform, especially among younger audiences, and trending content can turn everyday individuals and low-awareness brands into sensations within hours. Content on TikTok is typically much bolder and less polished than what you see on Facebook and Instagram, and the humor is often much darker and more shock-inducing than is expected (or accepted) on other platforms. Duolingo has absolutely cracked the code on how to maximize these aspects of TikTok with the content they promote to their younger audience through their lime green owl mascot’s viral videos. Putting their own twist on popular trends, making witty comments on content from other brand accounts and users, and leaning into big pop culture moments like Taylor Swift’s re-release of the album Red has allowed Duolingo to become one of the most successful social media presences among brands today. They’re winning not because they have the funniest social media manager, but rather because they understand the importance of matching their strategy to their context.

The GS&F social team is very well versed in building these kinds of sharp strategies that effectively leverage relevant humor-filled content for our clients. The work GS&F has done with Southern fast-food brand Jack’s and convenience store pizza brand Hunt Brothers Pizza are prime examples of how we bring humor and absurdity into our social strategies. By taking familiar meme formats and giving them the surprisingly Southern Jack’s twist our audience loves, our Jack’s content captures attention and wins engagement while also building positive perception of the brand. Hunt Brothers Pizza plays with funny quips and approachable memes that echo their audience’s casual sense of humor to drive engagement and brand connection. Tailoring what kinds of humor will resonate best across platforms and audiences is key to GS&F’s content strategy, so the humor we share on Facebook often differs from the memes we post on Instagram. It’s all about being able to read the room.

Relevance is the key to resonance

Recognizing this cultural lean towards humor and absurdity is a great first step to curating relevant content. Figuring out the best approach to leveraging it for your specific audiences requires a lot more consideration and strategy. Luckily for you, there are experts like us at GS&F who can help you get there. And yes, that was a shameless plug; did we mention main character syndrome is a big thing right now?

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