“Silly PR is better than serious PR”: 12 reasons why

 

Baa Baa Land Movie premiere featuring sheep on the red carpet dressed in tuxedos and a dress
Silly: Sheep in tuxedos and evening gowns graced the red carpet and placed their hooves in “cement” (well, mud) at the world premiere of Baa Baa Land, an eight-hour, slow-mo masterpiece of Slow Cinema – about sheep standing in a field, doing nothing – that was marketed as the “dullest movie ever made” and “the ultimate insomnia cure”.

 

When his startup became a unicorn, one long-term client compiles a list of the lessons that he’d learnt on the journey there.

In fact, he asked me to read it before he posted it.

It contained about a dozen lessons. They all made good sense – but one jumped out at me.

“Silly PR”, it stated, “is better than serious PR.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading this prompted a rush of thoughts … in roughly the following order:

• “Silly PR”: Is that a thing?

• Yes, of course it is. That’s what I do. D’oh! It’s what I bring – what I’ve brought – to the party.

• What a brilliant name for it: MUCH better than the various other names – including guerrilla marketing and viral marketing – that people often use.

• How right he is. How true – not for every brand, in all circumstances but for many or even most brands, in far more circumstances than you might think.

• Yet, why don’t more folks realise this? And act on it by actually doing silly PR?

And then, finally, and maybe most interesting …

• WHY is it so true? What makes it so?

In answer to this last question, I came up with …

 

10 reasons that silly PR is better than serious PR

 

1. Silly PR lets you be not just somewhat or marginally better than your rivals but WAY better.

If you do traditional PR well, the best you can hope for is to do it somewhat better than your competitors … since even if you’re doing it particularly well, it’s still pretty much what everyone else is doing too.

If, on the other hand, you do silly PR – alias non-traditional PR, guerrilla/viral PR, or quirky, creative PR – well, you’re likely to be doing it not just somewhat but spectacularly better than your competitors … since few or any of them will be doing doing it all … either because it doesn’t occur to them or because they don’t know how.

This is why silly PR, done well, can give you such a competitive edge and amount even to a kind of secret weapon.

 

2. Silly PR gives you more for your money – more buzz for your marketing buck

With serious PR you’re generally aiming to get one good piece of coverage at a time. With silly PR, if you get it right, you can get not just one piece of coverage but dozens or scores or sometimes hundreds.

If, meanwhile, your idea is silly enough and it makes people laugh, it doesn’t need to be costly to execute.

So, when Think Inc placed an ad on behalf of a London translation company for the world’s first professional emoji translator, it cost almost nothing but won huge global coverage and ton of high-quality inbound links to its site.

When an Australian artist recently pulled a pickle from a McDonald’s Cheeseburger and slapped it to the ceiling of a New Zealand art gallery, while calling conceptual art and placing a price tag of $10,000 Australian dollars (just over $6,000 U.S.) on it, he was making a serious point about the pretentiousness of much modern art. But the world, as intended, judged it so delightfully silly and amusing that it won huge global attention – all for the cost of a Cheeseburger pickle.

 

3. The silliest ideas are often also the most successful

The silliest ideas are, in my experience, also the ones that often generate the most coverage and buzz and regularly top the lists of “Most popular”, “Most viewed” and “Most shared” stories.

One of the most successful stories that Think Inc has ever done was Baa Baa Land, an eight-hour, slow-motion film, entirely starring sheep, standing in a field and doing nothing.

Produced for Calm, the meditation and sleep app, and marketed as both “the ultimate insomnia cure – better than any sleeping pill” and “the dullest movie ever made”, It went viral everywhere from Kazakhstan to Bulgaria and beyond, including even in the markets that we were actually targeting.

 

Baa Baa Land - Peter Freedman

 

It won so much global buzz that four months after releasing the trailer, we came back for a second bite of the cherry and staged the film’s world premiere at a cinema in London’s West End. Sheep in (comfortably fitting) tuxedos and evening gowns strode the red carpet for the cameras and planted their hoof-prints in … a tray of mud.

The result was a further shed-load of global coverage.

When the EU published its new GDPR privacy law, we had Calm respond by producing the world’s first and only bedtime story consisting of a long and sleep-inducing extract from a 500 and some page piece of EU legislation.

One journalist to whom we pitched the press release about Once Upon A GDPR, Calm’s unique new Sleep Story, hailed it as “wonderfully silly … in the best possible way” and shared it with colleagues who promptly posted a big piece.

Once Upon A GDPR - Calm

4. Silly PR is the future; serious PR is the past

The fact is that serious PR, alias traditional PR, is in decline while silly PR is in the ascendant.

The biggest reason that serious PR is in decline is that serious journalism is in decline and the influence of serious media – online and off – is ever shrinking.

Whether this is a good thing or not is another matter and there are good reasons to think that it may not be, but it remains a fact.

“Between 2009 and 2018, the share of teenagers in economically advanced countries who read newspapers declined from 60 per cent to 20 per cent”, explained an article by James Marriot in The [London] Times almost two years ago.

“Instead, a recent Reuters study found, their news comes from social media. That doesn’t mean Twitter (home of journalists and politicians) and Facebook (home of old people), it means Instagram and Snapchat.

“Adults are likely to be loyal to one newspaper. Teenagers prefer to browse a number of outlets. Almost every teenage phone has Instagram installed on it — barely any has a news app.”

Serious, traditional PR relies on contacts and there are ever fewer contacts for contacting, since there are ever fewer journalists and ever smaller newsrooms.

Silly PR relies on ideas. Ideas are the currency of the modern media, whether traditional/”earned” or social media.

 

5. Silly PR is “media neutral” – and media neutral is modern marketing’s holy grail

Silly PR is media neutral since silly ideas that work well, are able to so on both earned media and social media.

One reason for this is that Silly PR isn’t really PR – or, at least, it isn’t just PR. The core and essence of it is the idea, which can spread equally across all media.

Apart from media neutral ideas, the other holy grail of modern marketing is virality. What everyone wants these days are ideas that “go viral”; Silly ideas are more likely than serious ones to go viral.

 

6. Silly PR works well when you have something genuinely new to share or announce. Silly PR works whenever.

… or, at least, whenever you have a good idea. You don’t have to wait until you have a new product or appointment to announce.

 

7. Silly PR reflects the spirit of the age

In our ever more secular age, there is what John Mortimer, the late British writer, called,  “a deep modern awareness of absurdity”.

Silly PR reflects that awareness. If, as Nietzsche claimed, “God is dead”, then a deep modern sense of absurdity might even be among the things that has replaced him.

 

8. Silly PR is on trend and of the moment

This risks sounding like another way of saying that silly PR reflects the spirit of the age (see point 6, above). But I’m giving it a separate number because it’s sort of a different (if perhaps loosely related?) point.

What goes viral on Facebook is content that spreads anger and fear. But Facebook is in (relative) decline, with an ageing audience. What goes viral on TikTok and Instagram, the two fastest-growing and most happening social platforms, is, according to the latest data, content that entertains, delights and amuses users.

“There’s a reason why the app [TikTok] has recently hit one billion users”, concluded a recent Semrush analysis on The Hooks of Viral TikToks, “and it might have something to do with the fact that happiness, humor, and surprise were by far the most common emotions sparked by the videos we analyzed.”

Instagram is going the same way. The biggest reason for using Instagram used to be inspiration and product discovery. But the number one reason that people now use it, according to Instagram itself, to be entertained. Instagram, in other words, has pivoted … and entertainment, amusement and silliness are its new direction.

 

9. Silly PR has a market and meets a demand

There is a market and appetite for lighthearted, silly ideas – not just thanks to TitTok and Instagram but one that long predates either of them.

There is a ready-made slot for it – known as as “And finally” slot on the TV news, or in the pre-online world of print newspapers, as the “basement” story at the bottom of the front page.

Like the story of the waterskiing squirrel in the movie, Anchorman, a fun, silly, amusing story is just what producers are looking for to end a programme of gloom and disaster on a lighter note.

Even TV news is not the all-conquering power it was, but the same human hunger for light relief and laughter not just lives on but is stronger than ever.

 

10. Silly PR makes you cool

How does a brand come to be considered cool?

There are no doubt various ways but one way that I’ve seen work more than once is that it does so by making its target customers laugh.

My experience with various brands down the years is that, if you can amuse your target audience and show them that you have a sense of humour and fun, irreverence and playfulness, even a twinkle of charm, while at the same time your competitors are all just endlessly grim and prim, the result is that the customers you are competing for will come to perceive yours as the buzzier, more happening brand – in short, the coolest brand on the block.

 

11. Silly PR can humanise a brand. It can help dispel stigma and detoxify a taboo subject

So, among the longstanding ambitions of Calm, the meditation and sleep app and long-time Think Inc client, has been to help destigmatise mental health.

Mental health, of course, is a serious subject. Few subjects are more so. It’s also one that still carries a stigma that inhibits discussion and action.

One of the ways that Calm has done its own small bit to help destigmatise mental health has been by showing that you don’t always have to be sombre and po-faced in the discussion of it. You can show a sense of humour about it – like you can about most things in life.

The same goes, in a slightly different way, with meditation. Meditation is something that is loved by … those who love it. For many others, meditation is still something, well, sort of woo-woo, if not toxic – something for weirds with beards and vegans with sandals, but not something for them.

Silly ideas can help not just destigmatise mental health but also – for the scared and wary – it can help detoxify meditation.

 

12. “Silly and fun things are important”, says Elon Musk. They don’t just drive engagement and connection but also add to the gaiety of the nation.

When Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket ship, the most high-powered rocket ever sent into orbit by a private company, it marked the dawn, some said, of a new era of space exploration.

What prompted most discussion about the launch, however, was not its epoch-makng implications or even the rocket ship itself but its payload – a red convertible sports car; or to be specific, a cherry red Tesla Roadster.

Within minutes of the launch, a live video feed of the car was beamed from space, with a mannequin dubbed the “Spaceman” in the driving seat, wearing a SpaceX spacesuit. The car and its “driver” stole the show.

The video of the Musk’s car-laden rocket got over 14 million views in a week, along with staggering attention on traditional media.

As a stunt, strapping a convertible to a space rocket was outrageously successful.

“It’s kind of silly and fun”, Musk told The New York Times, “but silly and fun things are important.”

The reasons that they are so is not just that they, as the saying goes, add to the gaiety of the nation, but they also help consumers engage with the event and the brand on an emotional level. And when they do engage in this way, they in turn in talk and post about and enthuse about it to others.

Without the added silliness, in the form of a red convertible strapped to the rocket, the public and media reaction to a rocket launch, even a privately funded one, might have been, “Meh! Yeah, right, yawn, whatever”. With it, however, the reaction became, “Wow! Awesome. Ha Ha. Brilliant. Cool. Who can I tell about this?”

In conclusion

When I suggest new ideas to clients, one reaction that I sometimes get is one along the lines of, “That’s hilarious but … kind of silly”.

They love the idea but reject it for being too silly. Or else they approve it but only on condition that we make it less silly. Silly makes them nervous. It’s not grown-up. It lacks gravitas. They’re not sure they want folks to think they’re silly, when being serious feels so much more … grown-up, dignified and, well … serious.

In world, however, of ever more insane competition for attention there can seem a fine line between being serious … and being dull.

If such clients really want attention therefore, a wiser reaction will often be, “Great idea … but, not silly enough. How can we make it even sillier?”

The following is not true for EVERY brand, of course, but for many brands, and especially those wanting to stand out and get more attention for their money, my advice would be … feel the fear of looking silly and do it anyway.

I did not coin the term “Silly PR” but I like it as a new marketing term – and a term for what I do and Think Inc does.

It may not sound as bleeding edge – viral marketing, guerrilla marketing, guerrilla content marketing – but I consider it both more accurate and more useful.

In the event, the client of mine who DID coin the term, ended up never actually using it.

Just before publishing his post, he changed his original statement that “Silly PR is better than serious PR” to something more general about how creative PR could be surprisingly effective.

But I much preferred the way that he phrased it the first time. I felt, in fact, that he couldn’t have put it better.

“If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on PR”, is what Bill Gates is famously reported to have said.

If he did, indeed, say it, then it may be time that he updated it, by now declaring, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on SILLY PR”.