Lost in pun-slation

We all love a good pun don’t we. Well one would think so, living in the UK where puns can be seen and heard every day. But are they falling on increasingly deaf ears?

To be a headline writer at the Sun newspaper is the ‘pun-acle’ of a tabloid writer’s career. ‘Elton takes David up the aisle’, ‘Sex tape Tulisa hasn’t blown her job’ and ‘Super Caley go ballistic Celtic are atrocious’ are just a few in a long line of front page power-puns from the recent past. Puns are the tabloids’ daily meat and drink in their efforts to amuse the nation. 

Puns go much further than the tabloids. They can be found in all forms of communication in the UK, be it advertising, entertainment or names for businesses. For example ‘Curl Up And Dye’ is the pun-tastic name of a mobile hairstylist.  ‘Junk And Disorderly’ was coined by a rubbish collection service in London. 

Even that very un-British behaviour of protesting is not immune to a good pun or two. Allotment owners campaigning to save their Farm Terrace in Watford held aloft such banners as “Lettuce be!”, “Give peas a chance” and “Don’t lose the plot”. All this creative wit was on display outside the Royal Courts of Justice of all places. If a pun can’t make the Establishment think again, nothing can.

Creative writing has been a pastime of the British for many centuries. 

While our continental cousins were pushing the boundaries of the visual arts (Michelangelo, Monet, Rembrandt, etc), we Brits were getting creative with words. From William Shakespeare to Robert Burns, we have been using the English language to prove our cerebral prowess.

Fast forward to today’s post-Commonwealth world where according to the British Council, 25% of the world’s population has an understanding of English. Most global industries use it as their common language for example, science, technology, travel, entertainment and sport. One begins to realise why us Brits are feeling pretty smug about our language’s status.

And what better way to display our command of this global phenomenon than by indulging ourselves in witty punning?

One morning while travelling on the London Underground, I was picking my way through pages of Metro newspaper puns. Some of the headlines were so abstracted by punning, they made little sense to me. Which made me think, what would a non British person make of these puns?

Looking around the carriage, a lot of my co-passengers were definitely not British. One could hear Brazilian, Russian, Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic … the many tongues of our capital and beyond. Over our heads in that train carriage was an advert for the Jordan tourist board. ‘Extra-Jordanary’ it quipped. 

We were surrounded by puns. But how many of us in modern day Britain actually get it? Are these self indulgent puns falling on deaf ears? 

More than likely. The amount of people in the UK who speak English as their second language is increasing year on year. The last census indicated that 4.2 million don't have English as a first language, which is approximately 8% of the total population.

One of them is my wife. She has been living and working in London for 14 years since her move from the continent. What does she make of our glorious British puns? “I fail to see the humorous side” she said. 

Intrigued by her indifference to the pun, I put a few more puns from the media to some friends and colleagues who have also journeyed to our shores from a non-English speaking land. 

“I get some of them, but not all of them” was often the response. There were plenty of smiles but also some rolling of eyes and blank expressions. Especially from Seat’s advertising campaign who’s headline quipped ‘Enjoyneering’. Punderwhelming to say the least.

Puns as a writing style for tabloids is one thing, but using them to sell cars is another. Tabloids seek to entertain and so do brands, but only to a point. 

I’m guilty of the occasional pun in conversation, but I would like to ask my British creative peers, why is a pun so often the solution? A hell of a lot of money goes into branding, communication and marketing, so why are we risking its effectiveness for the sake of a witty one-liner? 

In my experience in the creative industries, the pun is often well received in a client meeting. Marketing executives see a pun in a headline and admire the play on words. “Do you see what we’ve done there?” the creative team prods, with a nudge and a wink. Nobody really likes to admit that they don’t. 

And before you know it, the pun is in print or pixels and about 8% of the target audience are probably non the wiser. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Take the dubious, dog-eat-dog world of online advertising. Those little boxes that keep popping up in your Facebook feed that are no bigger than a stamp and no more than 15 words long. “I thought this website was crazy, but what happened next changed everything…” dot dot dot. No puns to be seen here, just ‘clickbait’. 

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising has no choice but to be effective to earn any money. More clicks = more dosh. The two basic criteria for a successful online PPC advert is a) be instantly understood and b) curious enough to get you to click through to the desired website. 

One could say that this clickbait onslaught has been an exercise in creative writing - an alternative, understandable formula to the tired puns that are still peppering tabloids, TV screens and advertising billboards. 

Not that I’m condoning the clickbait approach, far from it. 

Visual puns - not text puns - can be extremely effective in creative communications. And they’re often not even funny, which makes them even better. Take the non-profit sector for example. There has been a steady, graphic barrage over the years of anti-smoking adverts which really hit home through devastating visual puns. 

You may have seen some of them, they’re hard to ignore. In one recent anti-smoking campaign a cigarette burns in a smokers mouth with mutating, cancerous flesh bubbling from the tobacco. The message is simple, “Every 15 cigarettes you smoke cause a mutation that can become cancer”. 

Loud and clear, whatever your nationality.

Leo Burnett, a colossus of the advertising industry once said “Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read”.

I’d like to add one more thing to this - make it understandable.