Benefits and HR messages: It’s time for some serious LOL

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by Jenny Campbell

In the last of a three-part series, nationally-syndicated cartoonist Jenny Campbell (“Flo and Friends”) explains gag writing for the employee benefits cartoon campaigns she develops with Outside the Lines Creative Group.

What is the biggest challenge, artistically, to doing cartoons for business of HR messages? How do you keep things light when the topic is serious?

The challenge isn’t actually an artistic one, so much as it’s in the gag writing. The whole idea of using cartoons to get HR messages across is to grab employees’ attention using humor. The mere bright and colorful look of a cartoon message is going to do that initially, but the message can fall flat if there’s not SOMETHING humorous in the text. There ARE times when visual humor alone can do the trick, usually to convey messages of wellness, like eating right and getting enough exercise. Even with cartoon mascots, there’s often a fall-guy: the guy who piles his plate with donuts while the other, “wiser” mascots are eating healthy snacks.

But the real challenge is in conveying messages that don’t lend themselves so easily to humor, like smoking cessation; investment issues; health screenings, etc. Ideally we like to come up with a funny scenario that’s got a strong punch line and also a funny drawing.

A therapy pony at Akron Children's Hospital is the cartoon mascot for an employee wellness campaign. Colorful cartoons with light-hearted humor get attention and help employees remember important messages.

A therapy pony at Akron Children’s Hospital is the cartoon mascot for an employee wellness campaign. Colorful cartoons with light-hearted humor get attention and help employees remember important messages.

That’s not always possible, but that’s the challenge. Often we’ll come up with two or three different gag ideas and run them past the client, even before I start sketching. That gives us an idea of where the client’s focus is, and it’s not unusual to have the client go for the less funny option because the message is clearer. As a cartoonist, I love going for the laugh. But in working with HR professionals, that’s not necessarily the highest priority. Still, it’s a perfect mix when we can come up with an idea that makes everyone laugh but also drives home the point.

Brief tips and advice are added to the cartoons.

Brief tips and advice are added to the cartoons.

Cartoons take people off-guard and allow them to absorb serious messages more easily.

Cartoons take employees off-guard and allow them to absorb serious messages more easily.

 

How do you get feedback when you’re not there to see the reactions of your readers?

It’s true that getting feedback from the true recipients of our humor – the employees – is tough. So that’s where I rely heavily on the HR folks with whom we’re working. For example, in working with the whole HR/marketing team at Akron Children’s Hospital, it’s VERY gratifying because our main contact, a communication/marketing specialist, is wonderful about sending all the comments from all the members of the team. And, if I’ve made my team really happy, then I feel pretty confident that the employee reactions will be the same.

In other areas of cartooning, outside of my work with OTL, I also rely on the reactions of the art directors, editors and other clients I’m working with directly. Once my work has gone out into the world, I just have to hope it’s well-received. And, the fact that I’ve been able to make a living doing this for more than 25 years, leads me to suspect that, for the most part, folks are liking what I do.

Here’s a quick story from yesterday that doesn’t involve my work with OTL, but was a perfect example of how to answer this question. One of the many things I do is the occasional school visit with an author friend, Sandy Philipson, whose children’s books I illustrate. We were at a school all day yesterday, presenting our dog-and-pony show to four sessions of kids, from kindergarten through fourth grade. In the last session, with three classes of third graders in attendance, I was in the midst of an interactive exercise where the kids help me “create” a crazy character from scratch, and I was wildly drawing this character based on their ideas, and really getting into it. And I noticed a boy in the second row, right in front of me, who was really laughing and enjoying it. He looked like a boy who might not normally fit in, so I was aware of him. After the exercise, he even raised his hand and asked a good question.

After the class ended and the kids were filing out, the principal came up to us and told us that that boy hadn’t cracked a smile or responded to ANYTHING since the beginning of school, and they were at their wits’ end. She’d just been talking to the boy’s mother the night before and discussing the possibility of calling in special counselors for him. While she was telling me this, she choked up and had to turn away for a minute. Now, she said, she couldn’t wait to call his mom and tell her, and now they had some ideas on how to reach him – with humor and art.

If using humor and cartooning can, even occasionally, result in THAT kind of reaction, then I know that what I do is important. And that’s pretty darn good feedback.

Who is your favorite cartoonist and why?

That’s a tough question, and it really depends on what era we’re talking about. When I was a kid, there WAS no other cartoonist but Charles Schulz, and I was glued to his little “Peanuts” paperbacks day and night. I loved his poignancy as much as I loved the simplicity of his drawings. He was the first cartoonist who made me laugh out loud on a regular basis, and also made me THINK. Not easy for a 9-year-old.

A little later, my mom bought me a book called, “A Leg At Each Corner”, a series of hilarious equestrian cartoons of kids riding belligerent, WONDERFULLY drawn ponies, by a British cartoonist, Norman Thelwell. I’ve remained a passionate Thelwell fan into adulthood and fell in love with eBay when I realized I could collect Thelwell books I never knew existed.

In college, I learned to appreciate and love Walt Kelly and “Pogo”, which had been my dad’s favorite cartoon (and he LOVED cartoons and cartoonists). Even though it was no longer around by then, I went through a serious “Pogo” stage, where I soaked in as much as I could of Kelly’s backwater critters. I loved their language, their politics and I was totally envious of how beautifully they were drawn. The WAY some cartoons are drawn is still the most important part to me. I just LOVE well-drawn cartoons.

So, those are just a few, but I have many contemporary cartoons I follow religiously. I was an avid “Calvin and Hobbes” fan; who wasn’t? And I have a handful of contemporary strips I also follow daily. But as cartoonists who inspired me, I’m STILL enamored with Schulz, Thelwell and Kelly, and I’ve also become an avid acolyte of Edward Gorey. NO one is as hilariously dark as Gorey.

Jenny Campbell is one of the artists creating custom cartoon campaigns for clients of Outside the Lines Creative Group, LLC (OTL). The campaigns are fun, innovative and effective – bringing mundane messages about benefits, wellness, safety (and other HR topics) to life with the cartoon characters she develops.

Jenny’s daily and Sunday comic strip, “Flo and Friends”, appears in newspapers across the country, and throughout her career as a cartoonist, she also has illustrated more than 15 children’s books. Through a three-part series of blogs, she responds to questions OTL’s clients have about the cartooning process. This is the last article in the series.