Tip Of The Week: Avoid Puns in Advertising

Finding New Revenue Streams
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Before dissecting the many cons of advertising puns, it is first essential to know just what a pun is. Some people in the industry, especially junior level copywriters, designers, and account managers, confuse puns with clever writing, or witty verbiage. 

The Definition of a Pun

According to the grammar Expert, a pun is essentially a "play on words, either on different senses of the same word or on the similar sense or sound of different words."

That's as accurate a description of a pun as you'll find anywhere. And here are some examples, just to hammer that point home:

  • A vulture boards a plane, carrying two dead possums. The attendant looks at him and says, "I'm sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger."
  • Kings worry about a receding hairline.
  • Dog gives birth at the side of a road; charged with littering.
  • Reading whilst sunbathing makes you very well red.

You get the idea. You're saying one thing, but referencing something else with the same sound or spelling, but a different meaning.

A pun is usually followed by a groan from the people hearing it or reading it. It's rarely followed by raucous laughter, and it's almost never thought of as clever or sophisticated. It is what it is; a play on words that relies on phonetics.

Why Puns In Advertising DO NOT work.

If you're just starting out as a copywriter or other creative advertising professional, you will write puns on every job. It's inevitable. The creative process is one that requires the exercising of ideas both good and bad from the mind. They get poured onto paper, and the ideas mingle together, with new ones blossoming, and bad ones dying in a crumpled pile alongside the trash can.

So, puns will make it onto paper. You just have to see that they don't make the final cut. OR, for that matter, the first cut. A pun is the artistic equivalent of paint by numbers. Puns are easy because they come to mind first and seem like clever wordplay.

But consider these, which were written in just seconds by your humble guide:

  • Our library is housed in a multi-story building.
  • Dead batteries, now free of charge.
  • Chess pieces for sale at a local pawn shop.
  • These new ceiling fans are revolutionary.

Well, most of those aren't even all that clever, but they're a prime example of puns that make it into ads every day. They're tacky, they debase the product or service, and they should be avoided at all costs.

"Ah Yes, But I Write Really Good Puns."

That's highly doubtful actually. A "good pun" is an oxymoron if ever there was one, and a book full of them will guarantee you a permanent place on the rejection pile. To be honest, you can do better. You should do better.

Think of all the great jokes you've heard over the years, and consider how many of them were knock, knock jokes. It is the realm you're working in. Rise above the pun, use your brain and come up with something that's both compelling and rooted in the product. That will be more persuasive than a cheap pun any day of the week.

Sometimes Puns Work. They Are The Exception To The Rule.

On very rare occasions, a pun can work. BUT, this is not a license to start writing puns for every client (or yourself, if you are the client) and begin littering the world with awful copy.

When a pun is used well, it is written by someone who knows the rules of copywriting and knows how to break them when the time is right. Just like Harry Connick Jr. playing the piano badly, he must first know how to play it superbly.
With that in mind, here are a few puns that made the cut. They are solid, and to be fair, are barely puns (with the exception of Michelin). 

  • When it pours, it reigns - Michelin Tires
  • Beanz Meanz Heinz - Heinz
  • Don't Be Vague. Ask For Haig. - Haig Scotch Whisky

However, the following taglines are timeless and don't leave the same slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth as the ones above: Pun-free is always the way to go. 

Remember, puns do not do yourself, or the advertising industry, any good at all. Avoid using them at all costs, and if the client insists on seeing some, always present better options. Clever copywriting does not have to rhyme or be punny. It will persuade, and it will do so beautifully. Just look at the work of David Abbott, Neil French and ​David Ogilvy for evidence of that.