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Got Out My Camera,
part 3:

The Case Against Puns.

Article by
Charlie Hopper
Principal, Writer
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image? Dan gold E6 Hj Qa B7 UEA unsplash 2

This shouldn’t take too long.

I’ve only got about fifty-seven hours worth of opinions about puns. I’ve even been on New Hampshire Public Radio arguing with an editor of The Atlantic Monthly in a mock debate about whether puns are good or bad.

My position: bad.

Basic reason: opportunity cost.

I’ll keep it simple. In the area that the pun occupies—whether that’s air time, or pixels, or valuable space on a poster or print ad or billboard—you could have said something persuasive.

Something informative—it can still be clever, or thought-provoking. But you could have used that space for something that begins to change people’s minds. Here’s just one example of a billboard that could have employed a pun but instead chose to say something that begins to change people’s minds:

Chipotle! Where's your pun?

So yeah. That’s somewhat old, and they were onto a Big Idea instead of just shilling the quarterly LTO, but by saying something more substantive than clever, Chipotle’s writer caused ideas to begin seeping into people’s brains—not just jokey-jokes—and it started a revolution with Chipotle at the front of the charge. You have very few opportunities to influence people, to help them form the opinion you want them to have.

What a waste to fritter away that opportunity with meaningless wordplay.

McDonald's raises THE STEAKS GET IT?

And yes, it is meaningless. What kinds of steak? How is this different from a regular burger? Is there any information about the steak you’d like me to have, like where it came from or how it was prepared?

No, but “steak” is spelled the same as “stake!”

I have a photo I took of an outdoor ad that says this same thing; I”ll swap it out when I can find it. Right now it’s buried in my iPhotos.
I have a photo I took of an outdoor ad that says this same thing; I”ll swap it out when I can find it. Right now it’s buried in my iPhotos.

How are we supposed to react?

That’s my legit problem with puns. All the punster wants is a chuckle or groan—simple acknowledgement that they identified an etymological coincidence. At best, a pun is merely clever, and communicates nothing more than a vague good-naturedness.

They’re soooooo tempting, though. Everyone can always agree and align and approve a pun. A pun looks relevant: after all, puns tie in a word related to what you want people to think, usually, and sometimes seem to communicate an important claim: McDonald’s and Morton’s have raised the stakes in the game of quality beef! But we know—a four-year-old would know—that it’s simply convenience that it appears to have meaning, but mostly exists because it’s clever. It’s wordplay.

Just a coincidence of language.

It’s not that interesting to point out coincidences: “Hey, we both have on checked blue shirts today!”—there’s not much for the other blue checked shirt-wearer to say besides, “Yep.” After a pun we-the-receiving-end have nothing, no fact, no belief, no perspective to retain from reading or hearing it. All we have is, “They seem good-natured and kind of corny.”

Also, there’s the groaner-factor. This exists only to make you recognize the coincidence and groan along good-naturedly:

Hey! Marco’s Pizza thought of a pun!

You can’t convince me it affects your opinion of Marco’s Pizza even a little bit.

Could they have put something convincing on there, some point of difference that I could understand? Jimmy John’s might have mentioned they were Freaky Fast, and I’d think about that, and retain it, and it would contribute to my believing it. But “authentic?” Spelled wrong? Not sure what you mean. And there has been no change, not the slightest alteration in my opinion of Marco’s after being exposed to that hat.

That’s my problem with puns. All they do is make me admit they exist.

Now, I’m not saying you can never make a pun. I would be too curmudgeonly to accuse this lovely McDonald’s truck of being anything but a whimsical, rolling ambassador to a friendly brand. Just the fact there’s anything on the truck besides a license plate is engaging, but to be having this kind of fun—it’s delightful. So what if there’s some crude punnery (and a somewhat obvious sight gag) going on here or there. It contributes to a positive McDonald’s experience.

This McDonald’s truck is a billboard!
This McDonald’s truck is a billboard!
This McDonald’s truck is a billboard!

Am I being inconsistent? Hm. Yes. But I think the truck/billboard medium does present enough limitations that a pun is a little more acceptable. It does make me wonder if they could have used that space to change my opinion. In this case, I think it helps that it was completely unnecessary to put anything at all on the truck.

Think of puns like those French fries. Too many too often will affect your overall health, in an extremely negative way—too many fries make you look bad without giving you the nutrients you really need. But in moderation? A side of fries now and then is fine. Just don’t make a habit of it.

Generally, puns make you sound goofy and giddy. I think this sign makes Donatos sound like they’ve had too much Mountain Dew and they’re carried away with off-putting mirth, shouting something only they think is hilarious:

Hey, Donatos thought of a pun!

Check out that exclamation point. That one got them all worked up!!!!!! Pardon me as I refill my Mountain Dew again!!!!!!!!!! Maybe I overthink it sometimes. But usually puns give people permission not to think at all.

You might as well put “Copy goes here,” and not waste the time. Your pun has about the same affect as Lorem Ipsum Dolor.

Charlie Hopper, Principal, Writer at Y&L

Over the past 30-something years, Charlie’s played many roles at Y&L, including writer, principal, general enthusiast and creative director on Steak ’n Shake during its heyday at the agency. He is also the author of Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word “Delicious.”