Why the Greenpeace ad proves it’s possible to laugh with purpose

Thought Leadership

Greenpeace recently hit the headlines with its online ad Wasteminster: a Downing Street disaster, using political satire to troll the British government for a good cause – the UK’s terrible track record of dumping plastic waste overseas. It was a much-needed reminder of the power of comedy to get people talking.

It’s well known that humour is a useful but underused tool in a marketers’ arsenal. Humorous ads typically attract attention, entertain consumers, and improve attitudes towards the ad.

Comedy is also something people have been particularly seeking out during the pandemic. In research we ran with GlobalWebIndex in June last year, funny content was one of the most-shared categories on social media. People have been actively seeking escapism and light relief in these unprecedented times. And, with Covid-19 restrictions lifting and life slowly returning to normal, there’s now a pervading sense of optimism in the UK – and that means bringing back some laughs.

What made Greenpeace’s ad particularly interesting was its use of satire, and the comedic dumping of rubbish on the UK’s best-known political figures, to raise awareness of a cause.

Purpose-led marketing isn’t usually funny. It tends to be serious in its support of a worthy cause and this, at times, can make it forgettable. For marketers looking to support causes in a memorable and fresh way, Greenpeace has shown that comedy can be one way to do it.

However, it’s tricky to get right. Humour can be detrimental to marketing efforts when it makes fun of a subset of the population. Ironic racism is clearly not a good look for brands, nor is leaning in to stereotypes in a lighthearted way, even when done with good intentions.

Take BrewDog’s 2018 stunt to address the gender pay gap with the release of Pink IPA, a play on its Punk IPA. The pink can came at a 20% discounted price for women, due to the fact they don’t get paid as much as men. The campaign received mixed reviews and was slammed by some parties for its insensitive handling of a serious issue.

So how to get it right? Pick your target wisely and choose the right kind of humour, whether satire, light-hearted or laugh out loud, and if you’re taking aim at someone or something, always punch up. In Greenpeace’s case, the government is unarguably fair game to be lampooned like this on a serious issue.

Using humour in an appropriate way can help a campaign resonate, build connections and inspire far more conversation than bland and worthy content. But the usual rules for purpose-led marketing apply more than ever. Brands must be authentically aligned with the cause and be looking to support it long term, not just as a one-off stunt. Just like the empty promises from the British government highlighted in the Greenpeace ad, empty promises from brands will get called out.

However, handled with care, there’s never been a better time for brands to start exploring their funny side – even when it comes to purpose.

This article was originally ran in Campaign Magazine.