I'm the chief marketing officer of a Chinese-owned brand, new to the UK. We've got a great agency, a wonderful relationship and a cutting-edge campaign, but I'm worried. The owners are due in the country next month and have asked to visit the agency's office for the first time. I've just realised that its address is at number 66, which is unlucky. You must have entertained superstitious foreigners on many occasions, so could you suggest any ways round this?
They will know about Sherlock Holmes. Meet them at their hotel and, on the way to your agency’s office, stop off at Baker Street, where you should take a photograph of them standing outside, with the address clearly visible. Then drive them on to the agency. Beaming with pride, take another photograph of them standing outside, with the address clearly visible. Then ask them if they have noticed anything in common between their agency and the home of Sherlock Holmes. And you may be certain that they will.
The house of Sherlock Holmes was numbered 221B and the office of their agency is numbered 66B. In London, you can explain, such designations are rare and always propitious. Good fortune attends them.
People attending two such addresses on the same day may expect to be doubly fortunate. Show them your two photographs and promise to present them with a framed copy before they leave the agency.
And when they have left the agency, the agency can delete its "B" at least as easily as it installed it the previous evening.
Jason is the creative director of our advertising agency and I’ve suggested that it would be worth trying ‘punny’ headlines. I’ve noticed that their use is widespread in the newspapers and, if we want our ads to blend in so that people are more likely to read them, this would be a good way to go. ‘Crepe expectations’, ‘Morel high ground’ and ‘Lovely Ghibli’ are the examples I showed Jason, but the idea has gone down like a concrete parachute. Could you give me some examples of effective ads that use the punny approach and might convince him?
It’s possible, of course, that Jason is resistant to all creative suggestions from all sources, particularly those from suits and clients. Such creative directors have been known to exist. But, in this instance, my sympathies lie entirely with him. In fact, he’s so right and you’re so wrong that it’s quite difficult to know where to start.
It’s true that sub-editors on newspapers, whose job it is to provide the headlines, are addicted to puns. It’s how they prove to themselves, if not to anyone else, that they possess some specialist skill. But the only people who find puns funny are people who have no sense of humour; and the only people who favour the use of puns in advertising are people who have no understanding of how advertising works.
Those who love puns, and who love sharing their puns with their luckless acquaintances, are delighted when their acquaintances groan because that’s the best reception a pun can hope for. No-one has ever laughed at a pun – and there’s a reason for that.
A good joke makes us laugh because it provides an instant revelation. It leaves a gap that we delightedly complete. We "see the point": it’s effortless, immediate – and we feel good about ourselves for having seen it. We laugh.
Whereas, a pun, to qualify as a pun, involves ambiguity. It deliberately exploits the multiple meanings of words or similar-sounding words, so putting a brake on comprehension. You have to work at a pun; it’s more like a cryptic-crossword puzzle clue.
It relies for effect on the entirely accidental similarity of prophet and profit, even if that similarity has no entertaining implications.
And when we crack it, it reveals nothing – other than its essential pointlessness. We groan.
The best advertising writing delivers absolute clarity, immediate, single-minded comprehension and an element of reward. The pun stands stubbornly in the path of all of them. Perhaps that’s why I cannot think of a single example of an advertising campaign that has made punnery a central part of its effectiveness.
None of this will be what you hoped to hear, but Jason may find it helpful.
‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE
This article was first published on