The Cost of Humor – How many customers can you afford to alienate?

A job web site runs a series of radio commercials featuring a befuddled boss agonizing over how to advertise a job opening. In each commercial, a couple of his employees explain how XYZ Job Site can solve all his problems, after which he rejoices, usually with some silly song.

One of these commercials takes place at a funeral for a late employee, an employee the boss really didn’t like. The boss is crying because he’s afraid that, even as bad as she was, this employee is still going to be hard to replace. When he finds out that replacing her won’t be so difficult after all, thanks to XYZ Job Site, he begins singing a little ditty from The Wizard of Oz: “Ding, dong, the Witch is dead …”

At least, that’s how the commercial used to go; recently there’s been a subtle but telling change. Now, instead of singing, “the Witch is dead,” he sings, “guess who’s dead.”

Why the change? There are a couple of possibilities.

Listeners could have mistaken “witch” for a similar sounding word that starts with B.

While some people have no problem with obscenities, other people’s morality meters twitch when they hear such innocuous words as “damn” or “hell.” But both of these words are in the King James version of the Bible, so how bad can they be?

From their perspective, using the B word in a radio commercial airing on a family station would be a bitching bad mistake. Of course, “bitch” is not in the Bible, but it is in the dictionary with a perfectly legitimate, non-obscene definition: a female dog, wolf, fox, or otter. Then again, there is that other meaning …

It’s also possible that a Wiccan took offense at the anti-witch sentiment and complained. Wicca is now, in most circles, regarded as a bona fide religion. It’s adherents believe in unity with nature, peace among humankind. So it’s understandable that they don’t appreciate the evil, warty-nosed stereotype depicted in the Wizard of Oz, and that they could do without the lyrical references to witch killing.

Can you blame them? How would you feel if the lyrics in the commercial had been “the Jew is dead” or “the Muslim is dead?” How about “the Christian is dead” or “the Atheist is dead?”

It may seem that for most of us none of this really matters. Most of us are not Wiccans, and most of us won’t get our knickers in a knot over the use of a mild swear word.

What is important is this: It’s not a good idea to offend your customers.

You might expect to find mild obscenities and slights against minority races or religions in stand-up comedy routines in bars and night clubs, and you’d have to be pretty thin-skinned to complain about such in that context. But obviously, radio commercials and other advertisements are not the place to start bashing anyone. If you do this, ask yourself, “How many customers can I afford to lose?”