It’s funny, but will laughs make it sell?

On page two of the largest newspaper on the West Coast, a stack of three ads recently appeared in the far left column. On the top of the stack was an understated illustrated ad for Tiffany’s latest diamond necklace creation. The price tag: $22,500. On the bottom of the stack was another understated ad for a pair of gold earrings from Barney’s of New York. The price tag: $295. Sandwiched in the middle of these ads and using the same understated, elegant illustration technique was an ad for a multiuse pocketknife — from Target. The price: $9.95.

“Brilliant. That’s perfect,” Liz Weisiger, president of Marketing Etcetera in Westminster, says of the Target ad. “It’s brilliant use of parody. Your eye is expecting to see something similar.”

Using humor in advertising everything from pocketknives to supplemental insurance — recall the AFLAC duck — seems to be de rigueur these days. Just as sex and celebrities seem to sell, so does humor. Indeed when you have two out of three, you win awards. Like the Superbowl 2003 commercial break that featured singer Willie Nelson, notorious for his escapades with the Internal Revenue Service, stumping for tax preparer H&R Block.

But can humor sell anything” And when and how should it be used”

“That’s like asking if you should use an egg in a cake,” says Tom Duncan, associate professor of journalism at CU-Boulder and newly appointed head of the Integrated Marketing and Communications program at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. “Some lend themselves to eggs, and some don’t.”

Weisiger, whose clients range from high-tech start-ups to colleges and mortgage companies, agrees. “It gets down to the product,” she says. And it’s often not what the agency recommends that emerges in an ad. “The client might say “This is too frivolous’ when you think the marketplace is perfect for humor,” she says.

It would appear that there are few marketplaces that aren’t supporting humor these days, however. Especially humor and sex.

Locally, Boulder’s TDA Advertising & Design has created a highly regarded piece that uses both to sell Thule sports equipment racks. The agency created a TV ad for Thule that features sports gearheads getting up close and personal with their kayaks. The ad isn’t about the equipment rack, it’s about what it holds. “We did focus groups all over the country, and all people talked about was their gear. Thule was a conduit for a good time,” says Jonathan Schoenberg, creative director and partner at TDA.

Schoenberg, who’s clients also include the Denver Nuggets, Light Speed Bicycles and Izzi beverages, says all ads need to be smart or funny or both. “We tend as a culture to be drawn to smart or funny interactions,” he says. “And in the event that you can make friends with the consumer, you are very lucky.”

The current trend toward darker and more edgy humor in advertising is simply a sign of the times, Schoenberg says. “Dark humor is the result of a down economy,” he says. “It’s the result of where were are as a culture at this particular moment. In happier times, communication tends to be more carefree.”

Weisiger’s not so sure. She says her agency tries not to be too cynical. “Some people are so drawn in to their own circumstance that they are afraid to be frivolous. I think people are crying out to be amused.”

But Schoenberg notes that the advent of cable television, with its smaller, highly targeted audiences, also has contributed to the current edginess in some advertising. In addition, censors don’t seem to be paying as much attention to ad content as they used to. “The rules are evolving. What you can get away with now is very different,” he says.

There is at least one industry sector that doesn’t seem to be employing much humor — edge or no edge — in its ads these days, however. That’s high tech. Truth be told, there isn’t a lot of advertising going on in the high-tech marketplace at all right now. And for those who do advertise, the emphasis is on credibility, not humor.

“Everything’s about return on investment, customer successes and the ability to deliver on promises,” says Guy Murrel, a principal in Boulder’s Catapult PR-IR, a public relations firm whose clients are in the high-tech sector exclusively. “It’s a result of the harsh reality of the last few years,” he says.

Murrel says the concept of comic relief in ads for high tech seems to be lost on the high-tech industry. Especially for smaller tech companies. “There’s not a lot of thinking out of the box right now. That just seems to be our reality,” he says.

One of the few exceptions to that rule is IBM. Big Blue is using humor in its television ads to sell its business software. (Recall the executives sitting around the conference table peering into magic lamps and sprinkling fairy dust.) “But IBM is making fun of the stuff sold previously,” Murrel says. “They are saying we’re IBM, we don’t have to sell you trust.”

Another reason many smaller high-tech companies currently are shying away from humor as an advertising strategy is because of the impression it might leave on investors.

After the dot-bomb, venture capitalists are meticulously monitoring company expenses on everything, including advertising. As a result, spending money on something that might make its product look less than serious is a big gamble for a smaller tech company. “Remember the sock puppet”” Murrel says. “I’m sure (investors in the now defunct Pets.com) would like to have that money back.”

Will humor have to wait for better times to start creeping back into high-tech ads” It’s a matter of taste, Murrel says. He doesn’t believe humor will be used in the foreseeable future only to be cute and funny, “but if it’s a value proposition, it can be effective.”

Ultimately, Schoenberg says, every brand should have a voice, and that voice doesn’t necessarily lend itself to humor. “It’s sometimes awkward when a brand acts different than what it really is. The same way that you know what your voice is and who you are, a director of marketing should know what his company’s voice should be,” he says.

The important thing, CU’s Duncan says, is getting the consumers attention — particularly in what he calls intrusive advertising, such as those on radio and television and to some extent in magazines and newspapers. Intrusive advertising interrupts the potential consumer. Therefore, “If I can entertain you a little, reward you with my ad,” he says, “then I can interrupt you again.”