Credit: Someecards

Can a brand have a sarcastic tone of voice?

Yeah, right.

And while it might be tempting to leave this post there with that startling insight, hold off your sneering comments for just one moment, and let me explore this topic a little further.

We’re by now well used to brands wanting to be our friendly chums, our inspirational coaches, our well-meaning and concerned aunties. But as of yet, we’ve not embraced a brand that wants to be the sarky cool guy in the corner at parties, firing out an endless stream of quips and one-liners.*

This could be an oversight, and it’s not just me saying that but Actual Science** too. That’s because, according to the Harvard Gazette, sarcasm “actually offers some important, overlooked psychological and organizational benefits.” Basically, as you have to decode sarcastic remarks or comments, bridge the gap between their literal and actual meanings, you have to be comfortable with abstraction, which is good for your creative thinking.

Or: if you get sarcasm you’re clever. Well, duh.

We should at this point stop and define terms. We know that sarcasm (and its hyper-caffeinated younger sibling, snark) powers the internet; and I suspect we can all recognise sarcasm when we read or hear it. But what is it? My dictionary suggests: “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt” or “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark”, before reminding us that context and vocal inflection matter too, as does the idea that it is satirical wit, designed to cut or give pain — the root of the word, after all, is ‘to tear flesh’.

Yeah yeah yeah, I can hear you all thinking, it’s clear why brands can’t go there then. How’s he going to construct a case that they should?

Which, if you’re being blunt about it, sounds exactly the sort of counter-intuitive attitude that you theoretically might want a challenger brand to demonstrate. ‘Our product is better, our service is better, our experience is better because we’re smarter, obviously. Or perhaps it’s a little too dark for you to see that behind your sunglasses.’

OK, it might be a bit much to base an entirely verbal identity on being sarcastic***, though the wags amongst you might suggest that media brands such as the Gawker stable of websites and The Onion have done a mighty fine job of this already. Outside of that there are certain sectors where, if not an out and out mockery, a certain playfulness should be expected, nay even encouraged. Another time I shall post about how I still miss everyday (no I’m not being sarcastic) the Twitter feed of Betfair Poker, hands down the best, the most subversive and downright funniest thing corporate social media has yet produced. And when I canvased opinion about which brands might be considered to have some sarcasm inherent in how they face the world, the Irish bookmaker Paddy Power came back as a brand unafraid to, at the least, have a joke at someone else’s expense.

More broadly, you can see cases where the big sarcastic bazooka should at least be in the armoury, even if fired with extreme reluctance. Again, social media is the obvious place — and while I don’t want to be in the business of telling anyone to shrink their target market as a strategy, a little bit of the ‘this brand is for people like us’ sentiment a cheeky tweet can give can go a long way.

High risk? Perhaps. Though for maximum attention, nothing beats a good mistake.**** Of course, not everyone thinks they’re sarcastic. As Tesco Mobile said when it was suggested that they might be on the sarcastic side:

*I’m suddenly aware that I’ve just described Chandler Bing (young people who haven’t seen Friends, think a 90s version of Alfie Deyes*****) and now I can’t believe that any brand hasn’t at least even tried to co-opt his tone, in an attempt to appeal to that ‘Generation Y That’s Been Mugged By Reality’ demographic I’ve just made up. Could this be any more of a missed opportunity?

**Well, Actual Social Science, if you’re checking; and yes, I can make that gag, as my weedy MSc is in said area, and if you pull up things like hard data I’ll run away shouting “SPSS!!” at the top of my voice.

***Actual Science Science appears to agree with you here, with this study suggesting that use of irony and sarcasm was ‘inappropriate’ in certain adverts, and might impede getting customers. Science, huh? Never around when you want it to win you an argument.

**** See, I managed to smuggle something snarky past you right there!

*****I’ve been reliably informed that more people are likely to heard of Chandler Bing than Alfie Deyes. Curses, my attempt to seem with it and keep up with the kids has been foiled again!

Hunger, Fire, Harrumph.

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