Is Advertising Ready for Satire?

Dear Graduates,

There is room in admaking for far more than you’ve seen done.

I put before you today a tactic hardly anyone uses but which seems to me ripe for exploration.

–I’ve used it but couldn’t sell the work. That means nothing, though. Many times I have tried approaches that weren’t wrong,  just out of sync with the times–

So I suggest it now. In these newer times. To younger & more brilliant minds.


The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.

Is how the Oxford Dictionary puts it.

Also helpful is the American Heritage dictionary: A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.

So many ads fail to touch us because they make no effort to reach us.

The real human us full of folly and vice.

Most ads stay too close to the brief.

Which is to say they stay too close to what the client wants said.

Which is BUY MORE.

The audience quickly identifies a voice that issues from a greedy wish to profit from the actions of others. And refuses to be either moved or listen further.

But they are moved by having what’s inside of them exposed. And they will lean in to listen when something they see unfairly held above them in the world is skewered.

Satire is great for this.

Because it gives you a chance to say out loud what the true problem is that your ad is about.

Let me give you two examples which differ from each other not only in tone but in format. They are not from advertising. Ads are a lousy place to look for inspirational help in making ads.

Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal that hunger in 18th Century Ireland be abated by the eating of children was probably the finest use ever of satire.

It caused wonderful ruckus in its time.

The opening few paragraphs of Wikipedia’s entry on the essay describes it well. When it points out that “Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift’s solution …” it sounds like it’s describing exactly what an admaker hopes to accomplish in an ad–shock value to draw in a reader, followed by an unpreparedness that allows what one says to the audience to accomplish the feat of surprise.

A second example is from a pop singer who mostly appeals to folks my age but whose work you would do well to examine:

Randy Newman.

He has had hit songs more famous, but this one, to me, is his best:

The way both Swift and Mr Newman are able to straight-facedly say what the audience knows they don’t mean is both powerful and unexpected.

But, better, it accomplishes what few communications from companies ever accomplish.

They treat the audience with respect.

They’re daring you not to get what they’re saying.

It is disarming to an audience when someone talking to them drives directly at their sore spot at top speed. And an audience disarmed is an audience not ducking out of the way.

It seems to me an admaker might be able to make work that satisfies by examining satire the way these two have used it.

No, you’re right, it won’t work for many clients.

Brave companies.

Or companies forced by falling sales to behave bravely.

Just a thought. Best of luck with it.

FOR PRACTICE: Write ten true statements about life and the project you’re working on. Let the statements get crazy if your mind takes you that way, or more truthful, or expand into other subject areas. Generally, by the end of a page of fast thinking I’ll have written something I wouldn’t have dared say. Which is a good place to start constructing satire. If nothing else, you’ll have a new view of the product.