So why are truly funny ads so few and far between? To find out, Gabriella Griffiths goes to adland’s top comedian

Comedian Jimmy Carr has a question. ‘I always wonder why advertising agencies never bring comics in to write the lines for them. I’m not fishing for work, but there’s a huge pool of talent out there – get some comics! Employ me, come on!’

Carr was on stage at Advertising Week Europe with Ogilvy’s president Rory Sutherland, discussing the rules of humour and why comedy isn’t used more often in advertising.

‘Advertising is in danger of getting boring,’ said Sutherland. ‘You can’t be funny because clients are afraid of off ending people.’

Before the stage beckoned, Jimmy Carr worked in an ad agency. ‘If you’re a movie star, people lose their sh*t when they see you,’ said Carr. ‘But when you’re a comedian on television, people just come up to you and say “here’s one for you,” and tell you a joke. It’s amazing advertising doesn’t use that more.

‘Comedy is a friendly place and jokes are a way of bonding. Men are very bad at saying “I love you, man’. That’s why they tell jokes. It’s the reason comedy DVDs are so popular – they’re easy to wrap. And they build social cohesion. Advertising is about building groups,’ said Carr.

So why are we so afraid to use comedy in our commercials? Society’s fear of upsetting people should shoulder a lot of the blame, according to both men.

‘Either you believe in freedom of speech or you don’t,’ said Carr. ‘It’s crazy that adverts can get as few as one complaint and then be taken off screen.’

So are there any examples where agencies have got it right? ‘People say you can’t hear a comedy one-liner more than once but that’s not true,’ said Carr. ‘My favourite ad at the moment is the P&O one with Rob Brydon. It’s funny, and if you see it more than three times it’s not annoying.’

According to Sutherland, Apple’s hugely famous Think Different campaign started in a very silly place. ‘It was a practical joke,’ he said. ‘The creatives were talking about what makes a person different, and someone put up images of Hitler and Stalin. The next person put up Hitchcock and Gandhi, the images that were used in the famous advert.

‘You’ve got to climb Mount Silly before you can get to the sunlit uplands. There is a corporate culture in agencies where you can say stupid things and still be promoted.’

‘That explains you,’ returned Carr.