Conan O'Brien's Advertisers Need A Friend

Curator's Note

The recent influx of celebrity podcasts highlights the way each host chooses to engage with the mandatory ad breaks. Some hosts read the advertising copy verbatim, attempting to sound as much like a real commercial announcer as they can. Conan O'Brien (Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend) prefers to make fun of the entire commercial process during his ad breaks. With a tone steeped in irony, Conan riffs on the written advertisement copy, creates imaginary factoids about the products, and provides a meta-commentary all along the way. The end results can be hilarious, but one wonders how effective the commercials are at actually selling the product. Does Conan's ironic meta-comedy increase the listeners’ likelihood to purchase or engage with these brands or does the comedy diminish the brands in the minds of the listeners?

A meta-analysis by Eisend (2009) found that the use of humor in advertising can enhance audience attitudes toward the ad itself and towards the brand, but can decrease the credibility of the source. The latter finding is likely to translate to Conan’s commercials as he highlights the artificial nature of the commercial process. In the above clip for the Zinus mattress company, Conan calls attention to the non-sensical phrase “best in the business” in his ad copy. He then adds a layer of irony by stating, “But you know what? It’s here on the copy and that means it has to be true.” This serves to frame the rest to the commercial as something to be mistrusted or, at the very least, not taken seriously. In another commercial for Fracture, a company that specializes in printing photographs onto glass, Conan can’t help but include a thick layer of irony when discussing the company’s business model of printing photos onto such a fragile material. Surely these sarcastic quips and comments must affect the listeners’ views towards the products themselves. Scholars who found a positive effect of humor in advertising may be baffled by hosts like O’Brien, whose free form commercials, while entertaining, can sometimes disparage the very brands they intend to sell.



Eisend, M. (2009). A meta-analysis of humor in advertising. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 37(2), 191–203.



Conan O'Brien is following a long line of comedians who have likewise "kidded the sponsor" as a way of 1) maintaining their credibility with audiences and 2) keeping audiences engaged with the ad. Fred Allen specialized in this sponsor-kidding of Bristol-Myers  on "Town Hall Tonight" in the radio era, as did Arthur Godfrey for many sponsors during the early TV era--you can find his kidding of Lipton chicken soup on YouTube!

I think that Conan's approach to the ad reads and the way that he interacts with the brands would be effective, and I would much rather hear an ad read engagingly than in the same way that I would hear it if I turned on the radio. As a listener, I understand that the ad reads are meant to portray that brand or company in the best light possible to make listeners want to buy their product. I would assume (or at the very least, hope) that other listeners understand the purpose of ads as well. If brands are paying podcast hosts to talk about their product, I am sure that they do the necessary research to find out how the hosts usually do their ad reads, so if they wanted the copy read verbatim they could either specify that or go with a different podcast. David Dobrik and Jason Nash host the "Views" podcast, which I wrote about this week, and take a similar approach to ads as Conan does. Their banter and commentary on the commercials make me more interested in the product, because they give the ads an original spin and make it an extension of the rest of the podcast instead of always making it sound like a break or some sort of interruption. This can also prevent listeners from tuning out until the ad read is over, so they will be paying more attention and recognizing the brand name. At the end of the day, listeners will most likely just remember the name of the brand, not any false information or jokes that the hosts made up about it. Besides, adding in extra commentary makes listeners feel as though the hosts are on their side.

I think you make a good point that considering how someone reads or reacts to an advertisement they deliver can have an impact on what the listeners' take away of the brand is.  I feel that advertisements are more likely to be effective when there is some sort of commentary given beside them.  Overall, that commentary (positive, negative, or neutral) may distract from the brand's message itself, but it may be more memorable in the long run, which would still help out with brand recognition.  However, it is an interesting take that Conan seems to sometimes speak against the brands he is promoting, since it could send opposing messages to his listeners.  While he may be supporting the brands in the sense that he is giving them air time, it seems possible that his commentary is working against their goals, which could, at some point, have repercussions for him and/or the brands he's promoting.

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