Rap videos are a staple of modern life, including the in-your-face clichés that go with the genre. So when Oracle wanted to salute its Java programmers at JavaOne 2011 in a fun and engaging way, they created a hip-hop video tribute.
Branded under the name “Java Life,”  the video stays entirely true to the rap tradition, except that the lead “hero” vocalist is a nerdish bespectacled coder. Nevertheless, the hero and his cubicle “homies” — including a suspender-wearing sidekick with a double-ended light saber, and the hero’s uber-cute girl-with-glasses crush — deliver the rap with full conviction. After bellowing the chorus line, “We code hard in these cubicles!” the hero nerd swaggers out geek-specific lines like, “My style’s nerd-chic, I’m a programmin’ freak/We code hard in these cubicles/Only two hours to your deadline? Don’t sweat my technique!”
“It’s a ridiculous juxtaposition of Java coders and street hip-hop,” explains Adam Patch, who directed Java Life. And this absurd rap/Java mashup works: Since 2011, Java Life has attracted over 600,000 YouTube views.
Java Life is just one corporate video that uses humor to grab the audience’s attention. For another example, look at Microsoft putting Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in a Volkswagen Golf , then having them nod their heads to Trio’s “Da Da Da” as they cruise around on trash day, picking up discarded PCs. This Internet Explorer spot was a direct send-up of a contemporary Volkswagen commercial, with a modified tagline that said, “The Internet: It fits your life, or your complete lack thereof. On the Information Superhighway, there are passengers and there are drivers.”
In a more directly product-focused bent, Oracle’s “The Calmest Man in the World”  series shows an office where everyone is freaking out about the latest IT crisis — except for the utterly placid head of IT support. He is the Calmest Man in the World, because his office uses Oracle products that anticipate such failures and prevent data loss.
Each of these corporate videos address different needs, from acknowledging hard-working staff to humanizing the bosses, or just plain selling product on a B2B basis. But all of them rely on humor to grab the viewer’s attention and hold it.
“Humor can provide a connection or insight,” says Jacki Schklar, marketing strategist for an Atlanta, Georgia, medical/tech company and publisher of funnynotslutty.com  and comedyrants.com . “But most importantly, it can keep viewers from losing interest, or some cases, clicking away.”
“Plain and simple, humor is memorable, and if you can take a non-funny topic and make it funny, even better!” says Greg Schwem , a corporate comedian and motivational comic. “The Java rap is a great example.”
Humor is also a great way to effectively address normally dull topics, like the proper way to fill out expense reports and other corporate policies. Making dry topics fun to learn is the bread-and-butter of Second City Communications (SCC), the business solutions division of The Second City comedy troupe.
“Today’s millennials have short attention spans and demand to be entertained,” says Steve Johnston, SCC’s president. “This is why we work with our clients to create engaging recorded and live training materials – and even offer pre-produced ethics and compliance videos that are funny through our www.realbizshorts.com.”
Of course, there is a downside to using humor, and that is when it fails. “There is a reason why most things purported as ‘funny’ turn out instead to be cringe-worthy,” explains Drew Keller, president and founder of StoryGuide , a video creation education site. Cringe-worthy happens when a video’s funny cultural references confuse or even insult viewers. “Humor is cultural: What is funny to one group is decidedly unfunny to another,” Keller says.
So how can corporate video producers create funny videos that will amuse and engage their audiences? The answer is to understand what kind of humor works and what doesn’t.
“Humor often revolves around shared pain-points,” Keller says. “This means tying into observations and situations an audience member can relate to from firsthand experience.”
The Java Life rap video plays to this kind of humor: The situations and challenges mentioned by the vocalist are familiar and relevant to the Oracle audience it was aimed at.
“Humor also takes a serious brand, and lets fans know that it can be lighthearted, whimsical, and fun,” says Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media, a radio consultancy and app-creation firm. This is the logic of the Microsoft “Da Da Da” spot, and also of the Gates/Ballmer “What Is Love” send-up , which makes fun of their appearance before Congress by having the two point blame at each other in Three Stooges fashion.
“Self-depreciating humor is often a good idea, or looking at the universal absurdity of life,” advises Jacki Schklar. Either form works, because it doesn’t insult the audience, or pick on any specific racial, ethnic, or cultural group. “Insult humor can backfire as no-one likes a bully,” she warns. “Political correctness is [also] paramount in any corporate setting, even when you are using parody or satire.”
Absurd juxtapositions — a staple of Monty Python humor — are also good bets if they are done smartly, like the Java Life rap/nerd juxtaposition. “When we were launching a $100,000 ‘carrier class’ router at Cisco, since the announcement was in early February, we created a commercial touting the hardware as the perfect gift for your valentine ,” said Tim Washer, Cisco’s senior marketing manager. “It was completely ridiculous, but it made people laugh. It also demonstrated that while we are confident enough in our brand to have a little fun with it, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. People appreciate that a great deal.”
The last word of advice about using humor in corporate videos? If one or more of the jokes appear to be potentially offensive, don’t let them see the light of day.
“We’ve had things come up that we never would have imagined to be a problem and it hurts sometimes to pull a great joke,” says Jim McKenna, a comedy writer and corporate video producer. “You can’t hesitate. Just pull it or rewrite it if you think there’s a problem.”