My favourite joke of all time is one of the nerdiest things you’ll ever hear.
It’s a Shakespeare joke.
William Shakespeare walks into a gay bar…
Exit, pursued by a bear.
Now, if you get this joke, it’s hilarious.
But unless, like me, you live at the intersection of “lit nerd” and “queer culture”…odds are you don’t actually get this joke.
That’s because this joke requires you to know two things:
- That “Exit, pursued by a bear” is a (very memorable) stage direction from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale
- That “bear” is a synonym for a hairy, gay man
When you know both of these things, the joke makes sense and is funny.
If you don’t know them? *cue sad trumpets*
Because here’s the thing that everyone forgets in the clear vs. clever messaging debate.
It’s not about clear or clever.
It’s about how ACCESSIBLE your message is to your audience.
Let me explain…via one of the most beloved Drag Race traditions:
Starting with Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, each season (with the exception of All Stars 1) has featured a celebrity impersonation challenge called “Snatch Game.”
It’s a knockoff version of the Celebrity Match Game that started airing in the 1960s. (For my UK friends reading this, it’s a lot like Blankety-Blank.)
But the point of Snatch Game isn’t really to match answers with the panel. No.
The point of Snatch Game is to make people laugh as much as humanly possible.
So your celebrity impersonation must not only be accurate, but funny.
Like, hysterically funny.
Even if the audience doesn’t know who you are.
And herein lies the conundrum for Snatch Game: who do you pick?
Do you pick someone well known, who you can do amazingly well…but might not be as funny?
Or do you pick the lesser-known figure who you know you can be hysterical with?
The key here is the same as it is with messaging.
When your messaging is going in front of a large audience, it needs to be accessible to your ideal customer.
That means they need to be able to not just see or read it, but actually understand it.
Similarly with Snatch Game, your audience is…basically all of America, now that Drag Race is on VH1. All of America (or at least, the ones watching VH1) need to be able to get your jokes.
You have no guarantee that they’ll already know the person you’re impersonating. They might not know the catch phrases or what makes this person funny.
Which means it’s totally possible that you’ll bomb, lose the challenge, be forced to Lip Sync for Your Life, and get sent home.
Case in point: Sasha Velour.
A deep, intellectual weirdo who I already loved beyond reason long before Snatch Game.
She stole my heart with two words: Judith. Butler.
When RuPaul asked Sasha who she was considering doing, Sasha told Ru she was considering doing the third-wave feminist philosopher Judith Butler.
RuPaul asked to see some of her Judith Butler performance and the audience was treated to this delightful clip below:
(Jump to 0:28 for Judith Butler.)
If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. RuPaul is right there with you.
However, as I mentioned before, I live at the intersection of “lit nerd” and “queer culture.”
I studied Judith Butler in university.
Sasha literally had me in tears I was laughing so hard.
Because, similar to my Shakespeare joke, I had all the context needed to understand her performance already.
Context that most people watching Snatch Game lack.
RuPaul was unimpressed by her Judith Butler impersonation…and I bet most people watching were too.
Judith Butler isn’t inherently funny. But, when you know her, seeing someone mimic her mannerisms and circular, long-winded way of speaking, is.
Technically Sasha’s impersonation “failed” as she opted to do Marlena Deitrich instead (and placed second overall in the challenge).
So you’d think this would be a cautionary “clear over clever” article…but it’s not.
Because, four seasons prior to Sasha impersonating a feminist philosopher I’d written numerous university papers on…Jinkx Monsoon did Little Edie.
Understand, guys, I’m not big on “old” pop culture. Or even certain areas of pop culture. I’m a sci-fi and fantasy nerd. The farthest I tend to go back is Star Trek: The Original Series. (And even that’s a stretch because I’m not a fan of William Shatner.)
So you can understand why I haven’t seen (and have no interest in seeing) a 1975 documentary about “the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, [who] live their eccentric lives in a filthy, decaying mansion in East Hampton.” (Thank you IMDB.)
So why, then, did Jinkx’s Little Edie make me laugh even harder than Sasha Velour’s Judith Butler?
It’s actually a surprisingly simple answer.
Compare this clip from Jinkx’s Snatch Game performance to the one I shared from Sasha Velour above:
All of Jinkx’s jokes are self contained. I don’t need any extra context or additional knowledge to find them funny. (Except maybe for the last one, but it’s still pretty accessible given the popularity of Marilyn Monroe.)
Whereas with Sasha, if you don’t already know who Judith Butler is, she’s not funny.
So what does this mean for your messaging?
Well, several years ago now, CopyHackers ran a split test, wherein they tested clear copy vs. clever copy.
Their winning variant?
The clever one.
I mean…just take a second and read this:
That headline though…it’s so good.
But honestly, I doubt that this headline would work on it’s own.
If it were just on a page with no picture…would you get what they mean by “rough night out”?
However, in this page, it’s right next to an image of a cracked phone screen.
Which makes the connection crystal clear for the reader.
Oh, rough night out. Like waking up hungover but it’s a phone, so hungover = cracked. Haha. Yep. Totally.
You get the message this copy is trying to send
Because this page gives us all of the information we need to understand the joke.
It does not rely on the assumed knowledge of the reader.
Knowledge which, I have to point out, may or may not actually be there.
Unless you know, 100% for certain, that this is something your audience is going to get, you can’t assume that knowledge.
Case in point, my friend Margo:
Her audience? Marketers and copywriters and online entrepreneurs.
And since an online entrepreneur’s job is 98.879% marketing, they’ll get this too if they aren’t complete noobs.
Now, it might look like Margo is excluding people here with this language. And she is.
That’s the whole point.
The person who Margo wants to deal with, and who she wants as a follower, 100% knows what Margo is talking about.
It’s practically a criteria. Margo doesn’t want complete marketing noobs, so this copy acts as an effective filter, while still remaining 100% accessible to the people she wants to do business with.
This page works because it is still completely accessible to her intended audience.
Not accessible to everyone — just the people she wants to talk to.
It is fully written with her audience in mind. Because Margo’s audience is smaller and more niche, it’s okay if most people don’t get the joke.
Her intended audience does get it, and that’s the point.
But when you have a much larger, more general audience the risk that someone isn’t going to get the joke goes up considerably.
Because there are just too many variables, and you’re assuming knowledge across an extremely large swathe of society.
Not everyone gets that reference. Not everyone will understand that joke.
And that’s fine.
But you either need to work with it, and go narrow enough that 100% of your audience will get the joke…
Or go the route of Jinkx Monsoon and CopyHackers, and give your reader all of the context they need to actually get the joke.
There is no middle ground here.
Because clever marketing fails when it assumes knowledge or makes connections your intended audience doesn’t have or make themselves.
I keep saying “intended audience” is because it’s important.
I touched on this a bit with Margo, but I want to go into more detail on it here.
In a nutshell:
You are always going to alienate or exclude someone.
Humor is subjective. When a joke doesn’t land with someone it doesn’t land. And trying the explain the joke afterwards often makes it even worse.
This is why when humor and “clever” marketing don’t work, they fail hard.
We don’t get the joke, so we feel disconnected and excluded. Which means we like you or your brand or your product less, and become less likely to buy.
This is less of an issue when you work with a very specific niche. You can get and be super specific, alienate everyone else, and not worry that you’re scaring off the people you want to attract.
When you work with larger, more general audiences, it becomes more complex and problematic.
Yes, we want to work with fun and cool companies. But not at the expense of knowing what you do.
The danger with “clever” messaging is in excluding the people you want to talk to.
There are some exclusions will have to make by necessity.
- People who can’t pay you.
- People who don’t understand what you do.
- People who don’t fit your buyer profile.
- People who don’t align with your (corporate) values.
Or, even more broady: people who don’t speak the same language(s) as you.
There are billions of people in the world who won’t be able to read this blog post because I write in English for an English-speaking audience. (I don’t speak anything else so I have no choice.)
People are going to be left out no matter what you do.
Which is why making your message accessible to the right people is so key.
The biggest point in favour of clear marketing is that it doesn’t alienate people — even unintentionally.
And especially if they’re part of your target audience who, for whatever reason, just don’t happen to get the joke.
This is why clear marketing usually wins. It’s more accessible.
That means your reader understands who you are and what you do without struggling.
This means they can make decisions and take action based off of your messaging.
But if your messaging is clever in way that they are either 100% guaranteed to get (a la Margo) or provides all of the context necessary to get the joke (a la Jinkx and CopyHackers).
“Clever” can do so much more to bond you and your readers.
But it’s risky. And it can backfire.
So ask yourself, next time you have to kill one of your clever darlings…
Will my audience get this?
The answer to that question is that answer to the clear vs. clever debate.