The Lessons, Surprisingly, That Marketers Can Learn From John Oliver's 'Last Week Tonight'

The comedian’s biting political commentary offers a lesson in authenticity for marketers who want to level up their brands.

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As a marketer, how do you cut through the noise and drive attention to your brand in a genuine way? Some marketers buy backlinks. Some hire people to create for them 10,000 Pinterest accounts that all share the same junk infographic. Some do reciprocal link exchanges.

Related: John Oliver Once Again Hilariously Advocates for 'Net Neutrality'

But none of these actions are useful to the reader or customer. There’s no added value, and no organic conversation happening.  

In order to learn how to build an audience in a genuine, passionate and engaging way, look no farther than your television screen. (Though you may need to poach your mom’s HBO password.) To master that specific skill on how to stand out from the pack, check out what’s happening on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Yes, Last Week Tonight: The program actually has an outsize impact because it starts a conversation with its viewers. It challenges them to think. It makes complex topics fun while calling viewers to action. Here’s how it works — and what you can learn from it.

The Oliver method

Certainly there are other late-night news satire shows. They make jokes about the outrage of the day, whether it's politically allied to the right or left. The audience laughs. Guests plug their books and movies. Viewers may learn something, but mostly they laugh and forget what was said by the next day.

Last Week Tonight has a different approach to news satire. Oliver, the host, tells jokes, but also assumes his viewers will stay with him long enough to absorb complex concepts. Oliver does more than spoof; he puts ideas together in a way his audience can’t find anywhere else. This is what makes his commentary indispensable and memorable.

Related: John Oliver on the Ways We All Get Screwed by Mergers and Acquisitions

Perhaps one of Oliver’s biggest influencer moments (in terms of its relevance to entrepreneurs) was on the topic of net neutrality. Even as the FCC considered rolling back the rules that force ISPs to treat all internet content equally, Oliver issued his own call to action for viewers to leave comments about the rule on the FCC website.

For a follow-up segment, Oliver created his own website, www.gofccyourself.com, to route commenters more easily to the FCC comment page.

His viewers responded to the call. So many tried to leave comments that they crashed the FCC website, leading to an investigation of what the government initially thought was a denial of service attack. Oliver’s campaign was not successful in convincing the FCC, which subsequently got rid of net neutrality, but he did educate millions of Americans about an arcane yet important topic.

Another keystone moment on the show came in response to the release of Vice President Mike Pence’s wife and daughter’s picture book about their pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo. Oliver took the opportunity to do an extended segment highlighting the vice oresident’s conservative and anti-LGBT attitudes.

Specifically, Oliver announced the release of a competing book, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. In his Last Week Tonight parody, the rabbit is gay, and falls in love with another male rabbit who makes him feel warm and fuzzy. The book is creative, and humorous, and comes with a call to action cleverly disguised as part of the content itself. The book’s proceeds were all donated to LGBT-friendly organizations. The book became an instant best-seller, topping the charts at Amazon on its release date.

Apply the Oliver method to your marketing.

Oliver’s show illustrates the value of using compelling content to promote the messages that are important to your brand. The video shares haven't been bought, nor the engagement with viewers on social media manufactured. It flows naturally because of Oliver’s humor and his ability to break down issues so viewers understood why they should care. People bought Oliver’s Bundo book in part to troll Mike Pence — but also, because it was a well-written, enjoyable book that they could gift to families with young children.

When you plan your next campaign, ask yourself what your customers care about. What drives them crazy? Could you create a tool, an app or a game that gets people to click or subscribe? What about a content piece that readers can’t help but share? The following  examples of brand marketing capture elements of what makes the show so successful.

Patagonia: Using gripping data and a surprising message to captivate viewers

The outdoor apparel company, Patagonia, captures Oliver’s strategy incredibly well. In 2011, Patagonia made international headlines with a shockingly contrarian headline for a stark, black and white ad. It read, “Don’t buy this jacket.”

Much like Oliver’s FCC campaign, the brand pulled together compelling data points and stories that discussed the impact of disposable fashion — fashionable but cheaply made clothing; this helped to cement the company's sustainable, eco-friendly brand presence. While it may seem bizarre to urge customers not to buy its products, Patagonia focuses on urging customers to buy a product only when they genuinely need it. And that means they’re likely to pay more for something that will bring them years of true value.

The brand has also created a Worn Wear store, which offers pre-loved apparel as well as repair guides to show customers how to fix their beloved Patagonia clothing so they don’t need to replace it.

Take a stand — even if it alienates some of your potential audience

Patagonia also crosses that rarely breached line into political activism: Its “ActionWorks” site includes ways that website visitors can take action on environmental campaigns to help keep the Earth clean.

Nike, too, recently made the controversial move of embracing Colin Kaepernick, the football player who led the “take a knee” movement and was subsequently dropped from the San Francisco 49ers' lineup. Nike featured Kaepernick's face in closeup in an ad, with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

While some Nike customers railed against the campaign, even pledging to boycott the brand or burn up their Nike shoes,thousands of others were moved to pledge their loyalty toward the brand. The end result? Nike’s profits went up by $ 6 billion after the ad launch, showing a huge impact.

Likewise, John Oliver takes an extremely liberal political stance, railing against the current administration and espousing its hypocrisy at every turn. In contrast, Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, has made every effort to stay out of politics and make a show that will make everyone laugh. Stephen Colbert echoes Oliver’s strong political stance on the broadcast TV playing ground — and he’s been crushing Fallon in the ratings ever since the 2016 election. (Oliver’s viewer numbers aren’t comparable, given that the show is accessible only to HBO subscribers.)

Related: What You Can Learn From the Viral Shenanigans of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

These brands — like Oliver, Patagonia and Nike — are doing work that breaks the mold, and goes far beyond what’s expected of them, much the way Oliver’s show does. If you too can create surprising, compelling content that teaches your audience something new, delivers real value and convinces customers to become invested in what you stand for, you can create a truly memorable brand experience that will help you earn fans for life.

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Entrepreneur: Sales and Marketing

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