When Can HR Be Funny? Rarely.

RJ Morris Communication, Employment Branding and Culture, Recruiting, RJ Morris

Confessional time here at FOT, folks. In almost every developmental discussion I have ever had, my sense of humor comes up as both a strength and an area for development. You see, I think I am kinda funny, and humor adds levity and makes me more accessible. There, it’s a strength. When used incorrectly, however, it can also make me come off as insensitive, tone deaf and unprofessional. Not so good.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone gets my humor, and the impact of a joke can misalign with my intentions. In a formal HR role, especially, funny can cause major trouble when the message does not match the company.

Kmart, home of the old blue light special, might have found this lesson out this week. Kmart’s overview from their own website talks about their “key brands” of Jaclyn Smith and SmartSense. Look, when you see that, you’re pretty sure who their target demographic is. Kmart was made to be pure conservative vanilla, play to the center and keep it pretty simple. Edgy is not who they are.

That’s why their recent viral commercial caught my attention. Check the video, and then check me after the break.

I laughed, but I can be pretty sophomoric. Andy Sernovitz from the awesome blog “Damn I Wish I Thought of That” explained, however, why this humor probably doesn’t work for Kmart.

Dirty humor is always risky for a mainstream brand. Is it worth offending some customers to get an ad noticed? Might be right for Axe or Diesel. Seems very wrong for Kmart.

It’s hard to argue with the success of 11 million views on YouTube. But those 11 million viewers may have very little overlap with actual Kmart shoppers — and actual customers may be fleeing the brand. There’s no way to measure how many people you’ve offended.  The real question — is the brand taking a smart risk based on a refined strategy (and research)?

Or is it a bunch of hipster ad agency folks pitching a wacky idea to a bored client? This sort of ad is fun to make and fun for the creative folks to show their friends.

I am interested in Andy’s questions, because I know that all advertisements act as recruiting pieces, as well.  In the same way, this is why HR pros struggle to be edgy funny—they have to play to the middle.

Don’t get me wrong—you can be individually and informally funny. Last Friday, for example, KD himself wrote about the protocol of giving high-fives in the workplace. Look, that’s comedy gold, baby.

But can HR practitioners be edgy funny in their formal communications?  Rarely.  It’s a limited group who can.  Examples from mainstream advertising:

  • Small company trying to establish its identity. Think first Go Daddy striptease commercial.
  • Big company with a tight demographic that responds to edgy. This is Carl Jr’s scantily clad women stuffing their mouths with burgers.
  • Big company trying to completely reinvent itself by appealing to a new demographic. Old Spice Guy and The Man your Man could Smell Like campaign.

Other companies and their HR folks are like first term presidents trying to win reelection…steadily moving toward the center to avoid alienating too many people. Tough life, especially for those of us who think we are funny.