When comedy goes one step too far

Sometimes comedy can be used in the wrong way. In fact, I’m often asked by fast track executives during our comedy workshop how to determine whether comedy is or isn’t appropriate in a business setting. I always answer by saying, “Take time to get to know your audience ahead of time. Determine their tastes and personalities as well as whether the organization has a track record of embracing comedy in its culture.”

That’s why I’m questioning what I see as a textbook example of how NOT to use humor to change a buyer’s consideration set and engender a warm and fuzzy feeling at point-of-purchase.

I call your attention to the new Planters Peanuts Super Bowl campaign. As you’ll see, Planters has decided to either kill their iconic, 104-year-old Mr. Peanut in an automobile accident or as the very creepy Tweet suggests, have him commit suicide.

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I’ve reached out to Maggie O’Neill, our resident pop icon expert who has promoted the likes of Webkinz, the Maytag Repairman and, Cowabunga Dude, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’ve also asked Clayton Fletcher, a professional comedian and Peppercomm’s Chief Comedy Officer to provide his POV.

  • Why do you find this campaign funny or offensive?

Mags: I find it funny – but understand the concerns.  Why funny?  Well first it was unexpected.  I haven’t seen Mr. Peanut in a while, and I had no idea he was hanging with Wesley Snipes and Matt Walsh.  The tone of the ad is not very serious, so you know and understand going in what to expect.  Some naysayers are concerned that Mr. Peanut killed himself or the ad turns its back on mental illness.  I don’t see either.  I see a brand that took a chance in “killing off” its beloved (debate there) character, has started a conversation around something we have not thought about in a long time and changed the conversation about peanuts from banned food to stay-tuned for what’s next.  It works, and the execution is funny. Afterall, it’s the death of a peanut in a fire.  Can anyone say Roasted Peanut?

Clayton: I think it’s a simple case of misguided creativity. The company didn’t want to announce the retirement of their iconic spokesman with a simple press release or in some other boring way, and I respect that. However, making death funny is not easy to do, and this ad doesn’t do it.

  • This appears to be a classic one-off campaign aimed solely to shock people and make the brand (Planters) stand out in our world of information overload. What’s the line between smart and strategic shock and awe vs. simply being offensive?

Mags: This is just the beginning. A funeral in the third quarter of the Super Bowl?  Planters has more up their sleeve if they are investing this kind of money, time and taking this chance.  The character is over 100 years old.  I don’t think its going away so easily.  That said, if Super Bowl LIV (54) is the last we hear of Mr. Peanut, well the campaign accomplished a few things Planters has not done for me in the past.  (1) It got my attention (and everyone else’s), (2) it opened the door to something new for the brand after 104 years, and (3) once I saw the ad (the Tweet was a bit odd if you saw it first), it made me laugh.

Clayton: In the sense that taking this risk gets attention, the ad’s a success; for example, Repman is blogging about it! I don’t think there’s any shock value here, but an irresponsible flippancy toward a subject that causes people grief and sadness, even depression. Not shocking, but not what we want from a wholesome company like Planters either.

  • Assuming they didn’t do so, should Planters (and their ad agency) have first screened the campaign with mental health experts, families of automobile accident victims (40,000 Americans die on our roads every year according to the National Safety Council), loved ones of those who have committed suicide (over 47,000 Americans end their lives every year according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention) or is nothing sacred in TrumpLand?

Mags: I assume this went through many considerations.  Maybe not a screening, but I don’t know. There is a small disclaimer on safe driving at the onset, so they did give it some thought.  That said, there is nothing in here about mental health once you watch the ad.  When I first saw the Tweet I was more concerned over the mental health issue.  But Mr. Peanut ultimately dies as a heroic sacrifice hanging on a branch with two celebrities after his Nutmobile goes over a cliff.  Yes, it’s funny.  But I was also less concerned.  They could consider a donation to a mental health charity or a distracted driving foundation as part of his funeral – in lieu of flowers.

Clayton: I’m sure a test was done, but I doubt the specific groups you mention were included. This is a tough area for me, because as a comedian I know taking risks is often the only way to find real comedy gold. Creativity itself must not be hindered, but part of the comedian’s job is to present the creative idea in a way the audience can enjoy. I feel this ad agency (who clearly isn’t comprised of professional comics) stumbled into “don’t try this at home” territory, and it rings morbid and insensitive. Not the tone I’d expect from a legume retailer, and I wish they’d take this one off the shelf. The late Mr. Peanut would have wanted it that way.

So, what’s your take? Funny or offensive? This part-time communicator, part-time comedian would like to know.


2 thoughts on “When comedy goes one step too far

  1. All I can think of is the classic Mary Tyler Moore episode where Chuckles the Clown is stomped to death by a elephant mistaking him for a peanut.

    The.audiences didn’t need the concept explained to them to find it funny. This ad does. That is why it fails