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How to decode New Zealand’s special brand of humour

At this time of year, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is in full swing and it always gives me a twinge of nostalgia for the happy times I have had there. As a Brit now living in New Zealand, these days my comedy fix is the Auckland Comedy Fest and an occasional Friday night at the Classic.

My first year at the Auckland festival all my chosen acts were from the UK – Brits, Irish, Welsh and Scottish but no Kiwi comedians. I’d seen a few New Zealand comedy acts and just hadn’t really got the humour. These days we go to Friday nights at the Classic which is all Kiwi acts and it’s hilarious. Perhaps this should be part of the citizenship requirements, and it’s a sign that we’ve really become Kiwis, perhaps.

Humour is one of the Kiwi Cultural Codes we identified as part of our exploration of what makes a New Zealander unique, a project we worked on with True. Of course, Kiwis are not unique in using humour, but the particular role it plays in New Zealand society is unique. Ask any new migrant and they’ll tell you that, like me, they didn’t get it initially and also that they are careful when using their own culture’s humour because they see that New Zealanders don’t understand it.

A tool for talking about difficult things

New Zealanders use humour as a coping mechanism for raising the topics that are hard to talk about. It’s not a big revelation to say that Kiwi men in particular aren’t big talkers. The current Toyota ad is an on point call out for the taciturn Kiwi bloke.

A great example of Kiwi humour being employed to raise the profile of a debate is the Taika Waititi? “give nothing to racism” advertisement. This approach doesn’t make light of a serious topic by using humour, instead it triggers an emotional response that not only makes the content memorable but uses humour to put us in a happy space and much more likely to act therefore. There is a body of evidence that proves that a happy frame of mind is far are more conducive to taking positive actions or making positive evaluations.

The power of humour to achieve positive impact is also a warning. Such a potent tool can be very damaging when it’s not quite on code. You may remember the Sealord TVC featuring Heidi Montag. The intention was a humorous take on her role as a reality star to support the idea that Sealord’s frozen fish was the real deal, not processed or reconstituted. It didn’t work and there was quite a vociferous backlash that required some deft recutting and editing to produce a version from which Heidi had been cut. Why didn’t it work? The nature of Kiwi humour means that the delivery has to feel and be authentic and Heidi was the antithesis of that. You can’t use humour as a coping mechanism unless it is genuinely the real deal, so that means authentic and relevant.

Telling jokes is a way of connecting

Brands have always employed humour. It’s a way to both connect with people and to be a catalyst for a wider social connection. People talk about funny ads as a way of making emotional connections. Think about it – why do we tell each other jokes? Humour is a way to incite emotions and get messages across. It’s this ability to act as a carrier for more serious messages that makes humour an effective tool for social marketing as well. It lets us speak of the hard things in a way that engages us emotionally.

And as with all of the codes, people respond best when they see themselves reflected back. Whether that is their own silliness or their hypocracy, but most important of all their unique Kiwiness.

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