How do you make women laugh?

It's the question every ad-man wants the answer to. Get it wrong (as on this Gossard poster) and the joke's on you. Get it right and you're chuckling all the way to the bank. Emma Cook reports
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Have women got a sense of humour? The copywriters for Gossard bras must have been shaking their heads last week, wondering where they went wrong. The controversial bra advertisement with the caption "Who said a woman can't get pleasure from something soft?" was intended to summon up a collective female snigger: "the sort of jokes women make to each other" a spokeswoman said confidently before the campaign launched. Sadly, the advert has backfired. Some women, including Lynda Lee-Potter of the Daily Mail, were outraged - the ad attracted a record number of complaints. But a whole lot are offended by something else entirely. It's not funny. Sorry boys.

The Gossard copywriters can console themselves, however, with the thought that they are not alone. Everywhere you care to look these days you will see publishers, TV producers, magazine publishers trying, in a desperate effort to reach the female market, to make women laugh. Donna Spriggs, managing director of Reaction, a youth marketing company, says, "In terms of being consumers, there's far more you can target at women than men. There's a much greater range of products. So, we are very keen to get hold of that market." Humour should be the key. But the fact that they still can't get it right is no laughing matter.

Liz Whiston, copywriter and creative director for TV ad agency HHCL Brasserie, feels the answer is frustratingly simple - too many men who think they know what women want. "A lot of marketeers say, 'The way to get them to laugh is to be "real", eg, women getting dressed and not being able to decide what to wear - rather than looking at a more diverse sense of humour which can be madder, cruder and more exaggerated. But if you actually write that, male creatives miss the point and say, 'I don't think that would appeal.' That happens to me a lot."

Ex-editor of Sky magazine Angela Holden agrees that the ad men are way off the mark. "When we wanted a radio commercial for Sky, we told an ad agency that 50 per cent of our readership was female. They'd caught onto the Loaded sense of humour and came back with a soundtrack of dogs barking and the line was, 'You won't find any dogs in Sky!' They seemed baffled when we told them women wouldn't find that funny."

Helen Fielding is the author of the Bridget Jones's Diary, which recounts the daily battles of a fictional thirtysomething with drink, fags and men problems. "There's no difference between male and female humour," she says. "What is different is the amount that appears in the media. It's to do with a public preconception about women making jokes."

Spriggs argues that it is also to do with the the complexity of female humour itself - which could be why the marketing men face such a hard task. "One problem is that it's hell of a lot easier to get men to laugh. Generally, the thing that makes a man laugh makes all men laugh. Women tend not to find the same things funny." They are also far more lik

ely to feel patronised when the humour is too glib - which it so often is. Magazine publishers would love to find a magic trick to "feminise" the golden formula that is Nineties irony. A successful female version of Loaded would clean up - or so the thinking goes. While laddism still sells everything from magazines to aftershav

e and soap powder, it's a different story for women. Nowhere is this more evident than in publishing, where the sales of men's magazines have grown by 54 per cent compared with a 2 per cent rise in the women's glossies. This year Loaded's circulation has

risen by 85 per cent and FHM by 218 per cent. No wonder marketeers are desperate for female equivalents. Leading the field is Minx, for young twentysomethings. Margaret Leonard, Minx's general manager, says ruefully, "We do get labelled the female Loaded for want of something else to call us." Minx readers are, apparently, as keen to know about the latest h

angover cure as they are the colour of Kate Moss's lipliner. "That's why," says Leonard, "although we deal with relationships, we've also got a section called Men In Pants and it's actually really funny. The readers love it." Minx's estimated sales are 1

85,000, so maybe they do. Yet try as you might to push the concept of the lager loutette smoking and swearing like a trooper, the joke never really hits that collective funny spot. Maybe it's just not there. Alan Lewis, editor-in-chief for Loaded and IPC's music titles, has his o

wn theory on what divides the lads and girls in the humour stakes. "There are very funny women comediennes and columnists but in magazines they still find it painful to see other women made fools of. Men's mags seem to say, 'Look at me I'm a prat.' Women

don't seem so comfortable doing that." It could be a legacy of feminism that women feel they should support rather than send up their own sex. (Perhaps that's why one of the best female parodies to date is Pauline Calf, the good-time, bleached-blonde, northern nymphette in white stillettoes c

reated by Steve Coogan.) Yet, these days nothing dates a product more than a lack of irony. Maybe that's why many of the women's magazine titles seem so terribly humour-free, so resolutely Eighties compared with their male competitors. Mandi Norwood, edi

tor of Cosmopolitan, believes that in terms of humour the male and female sensibility is different. "A lot of men's humour is based on humiliation. Women can be self-deprecating but they are turned off by cruelty. I think they're more sensitive to other people's feelings." Many women would disagree and point to Roseanne and Ruby Wax as evidence that the mega-bitch can be funny - and liberating. Meanwhile, marketing executives may find that the magic formula continues to elude them. The real reason could be that successful female humour - like successful male humour - can only filter through from the bottom up, as it were, and never vice versa. Fielding says, "You get the feeling Loaded grew naturally from a group of boys - it wasn't the brainchild of a marketing director. With Bridget Jones, I wrote down the things I thought about. Then I discovered other women felt the same way." Tina Gaudoin, editor of a new women's magazine from The Face and Arena stable which launches in September, is also following what she feels. "It's not going to be Loaded for females.," she says. "Not all women find laddish humour funny. Too often, it's m

en determining what we find funny; male producers, men who write the shows. I think going down the path of male humour is not the way to go." Gaudoin hopes the new title will be "tongue-in-cheek, provocative and slightly self-deprecating", although she s

ays of female humour, "No-one has got it quite right yet - nobody has really found the key." If she can pin down what a thousand marketing men have blindly missed, the last laugh really will be hers.

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