John Oliver, host of HBOs Last Week Tonight comedy news show, is causing a bit of a stir in media circles. The show is basically in the same vein as Stephen Colbert and John Stewart’s shows that poke fun at news stories. Oliver, however, mixes his comedy with serious, well-researched investigative journalism.
So far, so-so, right? Well, not quite. You see, John Oliver has been cited by a Washington state senator as the inspiration for a new bill that will let US citizens read and comment on any new legislation being submitted through the use of online video. This is because Oliver has the seemingly unique ability to turn boring legal or social issues into hot debate topics through his show. This is due, in part, to HBOs decision to upload segments of the show onto YouTube and other video sites. On YouTube, Oliver’s videos regularly top 2.5 million views and some have exceeded 8.5 million views in just 7 months.
And it’s not just the view rate that’s outstanding. Oliver has also had a real-world effect. After his Net Neutrality episode in June 2014, during which he suggested that viewers contact the Federal Communication Commission to register their displeasure at the planned changes to net neutrality (introducing ‘fast lane’ net access on a paid-for basis), the FCC website received so many visitors and commenters that their servers crashed.
What can we, as media professionals, learn from John Oliver? The first and most obvious point is simply that video works. As a medium for getting a message out there, it is perfect. We can tell our stories, connect with our networks and spread our message.
Secondly, research matters. The reason that John Oliver has such an effect is the level of research that he (and his team) put in. The news stories that he covers are often intricate and complicated, but the detail that comes from the depth of research allows him to deliver his message in an easily understandable way.
Thirdly, he is very, very funny. Using humour is an excellent way to ‘sweeten the pill’ and Oliver is a master of intelligent comedy. He is irreverent and cutting, but never patronising or offensive. Now, humour is a notoriously tricky thing to pull off. What one person finds funny, another may find insulting. One way to use humour and avoid offensive is to only poke fun at yourself. Many companies balk at this, thinking that using humour will somehow demean their brand, but this is not necessarily the case. The Dollar Shave Club uploaded a brilliant brand video to YouTube back in March 2012 which is currently sitting at nearly 18 million views.
The humour in it is directed at both themselves and their target audience, but it is not demeaning in any way. It gives an excellent insight into their brand and their company ethos, creating a friendly and approachable persona. There are many other examples of this, from the brilliant Old Spice adverts starring a half-naked Isaiah Mustafa (sitting on a very comfortable 49 million views and a horse), to the far more simple (but no less funny) Aldi tea advert starring the delightful octogenarian Jean Jones, which has a criminally low view rate of just 638, 000.
The message here is simple: make it funny, make it interesting, make connections.