Lots of people think they are funny, and many of them are, but few are as funny or as popular as a sign outside a Tex-Mex restaurant in downtown Austin. It’s not perfect, but the El Arroyo sign is more than a civic landmark: it’s a good test case for how brands can do comedy right. It’s not easy being cheesy, but this venerable taco joint has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that brands can be funny.

There is no disputing the sign’s success. The sign has 136,000 Instagram followers, enough to get it a side hustle as a paid influencer. Two years ago, it published a coffee table book during holiday season, quickly sold out the first two printings, and was on back order by Christmas. All of that popularity isn’t due to the restaurant’s solid if not terribly differentiated Tex-Mex in a city that once fought a tongue-in-cheek breakfast taco war with San Antonio.

The sign is popular because the jokes are funny. And they’re doing it the hard way, literally advertising that the joke is coming. It’s far easier to surprise someone with a quip than it is to day after day for more than a decade put a joke on a sign by a busy street and have it land. You know there’s a joke coming, but it still makes you laugh. Like the time it asked, “What if soy milk is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish?” Or, “Never trust an atom. They make up everything.” And my favorite, “No matter how kind you are, German children are kinder.”

Notice something? Some of the jokes reference Tex-Mex food – and tequila: “I doubt tequila’s the answer, but it’s worth a shot” – but most of them are just jokes, albeit clever ones that subvert your brain’s impulse for pattern recognition with wordplay, such as the dad-joke classic, “Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.”

The benefits to a brand of leading with a joke before you even pull into the parking lot are huge. When a joke lands, your heart rate goes up, your brain is flooded with dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, and you get a social signal to form emotional bonds. “Before we could speak, laughter told early humans that ‘Everything’s okay, you can come over to my side,’” said Dr. Carl Marci, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Before you ever love the food, you fall in love with the restaurant.

“It’s a tradition that people have connected with and we know that people drive by here every day just to see what it says,” said Ellis Winstanley, one of the co-owners. “It’s a part of what El Arroyo is and gives us an opportunity to stay connected to people.”

How do they do it? The restaurant owner isn’t telling exactly who comes up with the jokes, but the brothers who own the restaurant say that about 15 people kick around ideas every day by email.

“We pay attention to what’s going on in the world, which is usually pretty humorous!” said Winstanley.

In effect, the Winstanley brothers have created a virtual comedy writers’ room, and it’s that human element that makes the sign – admittedly, an inanimate object – funny. A story recently made the rounds with the news that the one thing AI won’t be able to replace in humans is humor, something that was foretold by the character Data on Star Trek: Next Generation. Artificial intelligence yields artificial humor, such as this bon mot that a comedy-performing robot tells: “If you prick me in my battery pack, do I not bleed alkaline fluid?”

For brand jokes to work they must have a human sensibility and a point of view, a “voice,” which is what the Winstanleys’ virtual writers’ room has created. Perhaps it’s the DIY ethos of that group that has helped the restaurant avoid the biggest problems associated with brand humor: stilted, committee-driven corporate speak, jokes overloaded with product information, and staying so safe that the joke is leeched of any blood.

To be clear, it’s easier for a family-owned restaurant to get away with jokes like “Wishing you a happy whatever doesn’t offend you” than a national brand. And some jokes are more palatable from a place that serves margaritas than from a phone company, such as “If you butt dial someone, is that a booty call?” And if you think this paragraph wasn’t just an excuse to tell more jokes, then you have missed the entire reason for writing this in the first place.

The biggest reason the sign works for brand humor is the constancy. Putting jokes out there on a busy corner isn’t a campaign, it’s a commitment, every single day for more than a decade. Using humor comes a lot more naturally when that’s what the public expects from you in the first place.

 

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