When Can HR Be Funny? Rarely.

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.

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. KD says:

    RJ –

    It took me 13 seconds to figure out the parody – that’s how unexpected the humor was from this retailer.

    I loved it. I’m going to smile when I drive by a Kmart, but I probably won’t go it. But, I think this is humor that won’t be lost on most people who shop at Kmart. It’s not a huge uptown crowd, right?


  2. Thank you for this post! I appriciate your work!

  3. Ron McManmon says:

    Interesting parody. I like to think I am the biggest jokester of all times but I have learned, as a recruiter, you have to warm up to peoples sense of humor. Especially for the person that is unemployed. Ironically, if these people had a more lighthearted demeanor they might have not been the last one standing when the music stopped. The toughest thing for us to do is laugh and have fun when down deep we just don’t feel like doing so. My point……. if your that person, try and let the others have a chuckle here and there without ridiculing those who are trying to have a bit of fun . You can’t learn how to swim unless you jump in the water:). The only reason I didn’t like the commercial is, I don’t like Bib Box.

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  1. Breakin’ The Law! But it’s in the name of better social recruiting, so it’s cool.

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