Thursday, May 6, 2010

The last laugh: The risks and rewards of using humour in advertising.

Neurologists argue that humour pulls the brain together. The perception of humour, it seems, involves an intricate interplay of several neural areas. Specifically, during the setup of the joke it appears that the left hemisphere of the cortex is active, processing the function of the words or images within the joke. After this, it appears that neural activity is shifted to the frontal lobe, commonly known as the center of emotionality. Finally the right hemisphere is engaged, with its synthesis capabilities joining the processes of the left hemisphere to interpret the pattern, ultimately getting ‘the joke.’ Humour is clearly a complex phenomenon. Sociologists propose that behaviours associated with humour were selected throughout evolution, with the perception and delivery of humorous material considered a critical part of social learning (Weisfeld, 1993). Humour has been reported to increase pain tolerance (Nevo et al., 1993), improve sentence memory in educational settings (Powell et al., 1985) and in the world of advertising, it has been reported that over US$167 billion globally is spent on ads that try to make us laugh (ZenithOptimedia, 2007). Supporters of using humour in advertising argue that humour is a universal language that humanises the marketing message, allowing the communicator to speak on an audiences level. However, opponents to its use report that humour wears out too quickly and has the potential to render an ad useless for repetition. Ultimately, what is clear in marketing literature is that the use of humour in advertising is risky business, with the implementation of humour by no means a guarantee of a better ad. Success in increasing advertisement attention, message persuasion and likability is also influenced by factors such how related the humour is to the message, the audience and the product itself.

Advertising executives appear to agree that humour increases an audience’s attention, at least during the first few exposures. In highlighting the importance of engaging attention with product sales, Lammers et al. (1983) draw upon a six-step Marcov Chain (exposure – attention – comprehension – yielding – retention – action). They argue that by increasing audience attention, so too is the probability of increasing the success of the remaining steps in this chain of attitudinal and behavioural change. In one study, Speck (1987) reports that humorous ads engaged more attentional resources than advertisements that did not implement humour. However, despite the excessive use of humour to engage our attention (94% of advertisements use humour for attentional purposes; Weinberger & Gulas, 1992), more recent research indicates that only half of these ads are actually effective. In other words, not all humour is created equal. One explanation for the different effects of humour when engaging our attention is ‘relatedness.’ Weinberger and Gulas argue that humour that is related to the advertising message is more successful than unrelated humour in engaging our attention. Ultimately, simply inserting something humorous into an ad will not be as effective as employing humour that is related and cleverly integrated into the advertising message.

While the effects of humour in engaging our attention are becoming relatively clear, there are mixed reviews as to the influence of humour in increasing the comprehension of an advertising message. In educational settings it has been found that the use of humour that is related to the lecture topic actually increases student comprehension (Powell et al., 1985) . However, data from marketing research indicates that humour in advertising does not influence message comprehension any differently to other methods (such as ‘serious’ communications). Despite this, the product being marketed has been found to influence the effect of humour on ad comprehension. Studies that have employed ‘actual products’ report greater comprehension when humour is used when compared to studies using ‘fictional’ products. Thus, the use of humour may not be the best technique when introducing a new product into the market.

Effective advertising is almost always persuasive, with the use of humour being instrumental in bringing about attitudinal change. Numerous theories have been presented in determining why the use of humour is so effective here. One argument (Duncan and Nelson 1985; Lammers et al. 1983) is that the use of humour distracts the audience from generating negative thoughts or counterarguments to the marketed message, thereby lowering any resistance to persuasion. In addition to this, Herold (1963) argues that humour may increase communication acceptance, serving as a reward or as reinforcement for listening and thus, audiences are unlikely to resist the persuasive message. An alternative hypothesis (Berlyne, 1972) is that the use of humour increases arousal levels leading to positive affect. This is then generalised or conditionally associated with the advertising message, enhancing the persuasiveness of the message. However, despite extensive theoretical argument supporting the influence of humour on persuasion, in the most part, empirical evidence has not supported this. Lammers et al. (1983) argue however, that the immediate measurement used in most humour persuasion studies does not allow the effect of the humour to take hold. According to ‘trace consolidation theory,’ memory and cognition traces are unavailable during high arousal states. Specifically, over a longer period of time, information learnt during high-generalised arousal has more active trace processes for subsequent long-term retrieval. Ultimately, Lammers (1983) argue that while a majority of empirical studies have failed to measure the influence of humour on persuasion (and indeed comprehension), humorous appeals may actually be more effective than other methods (such as serious appeals) over a longer period.

As with most studies assessing both humour and advertising, there are multiple ‘disclaimers’ that must also be considered when determining the benefits of using humour in persuasive communication. Weinberger et al.  (1992) outline that similarly to attentional engagement, related humour is more persuasive (in regards to intention to buy) than unrelated humour or the use of no humour at all. Lammers et al. (1983) also report that related humour is more persuasive for people with prior positive brand recognition and not beneficial for people with negative brand attitudes. Finally, the intensity of the humorous message has also been reported to influence levels of persuasion. Bryant et al. (1981) argue that the use of low levels of humour was no different to the use of no humour at all, while the excessive use of humour was actually detrimental to the persuasiveness of the message. Evidently, a careful decision must be made as to the extent to which humour is used in an advertising message or indeed whether it is used at all.

Executional factors and the type of humour employed in an advertisement may also play a role in the success of humour in advertising. As previously indicated, most research has found that related humour is more successful than humour which is not related to the product or brand message. Incongruity humour (whereby surprise or inconsistency is sufficient to achieve humour) has also been found to be particularly effective in print advertising. In one study, 75% of magazine ads (irrespective of product type) used incongruity humour (Spotts et at., 1997). Alden et al. (1993) argue that humour through incongruity holds cross culturally and as a consequence, is the most commonly implemented type of humour in advertising. The way in which humour is used within a message is also highly relevant. In 'humour dominant' ads the humour is superordinate to the message (whereby the advertisement relies on humour to make sense), while in 'message dominant' advertising, the humour is subordinate to the overall message. Different types of humour also attract and appeal to different audiences. Whipple and Courtney (1981) finally outline that men enjoy aggressive and sexual humour more than women, while women appear to have a greater appreciation for non-sensical humour.

Above is an ad which may appeal to men more than women.

Product category and the consumer decision-making processes which are associated with these products, are also influential in determining the use and success of humour in advertising. To better understand the differences between product categories, the Product Category Colour (PCC) matrix may be used.

The PCC Matrix (Sternthal & Craig, 1973).

Sternthal and Craig (1973) argue that ‘yellow goods,’ which consist of low involvement, ‘feeling’ products bought for self gratification and for which consumers spend little time making purchasing decisions, are most responsive to humour based advertising. Sternthal and Craig (1973) highlight that for 'yellow goods,' ‘humour dominant’ ads are most appropriate, implemented to attract attention, develop a brand image and potentially, increase high arousal product associations promoting impulsive purchasing decisions.

Below is a TVC which is a perfect example of a humour dominant ad for a yellow good (Snickers Bar).

White goods’ however, which are high involvement purchases bought to solve problems, require a different approach. For these goods, consumers require a level of information to determine an appropriate purchasing decision. Sternthal and Craig (1973) propose that an information dominant ad with message based humour is most suited and also most commonly used. In these ads, humour may help to engage the audience’s attention, but humour alone cannot be used to influence potential purchasing decisions.

Below is a print advertisement for a Sanyo 'Intellegent Wash.' For this ad, message dominant incongruity based humour (the brain is compiled of clothes) was implemented to develop and strengthen the brand message. 

'Red goods’ are high involvement ‘feeling’ products that can often be considered directly related to the purchasers self image. Thus, Sternthal and Craig (1973) propose that the use of humour, which has the potential to make fun of the product (and indirectly the consumer), may be perceived to be threatening by the audience.

It is evident from the Armani ad below, that fashion is clearly nothing to laugh about...

Finally, for low involvement functional based ‘blue goods,’ Sternthal and Craig (1973) argues that the use of humour potentially interferes with message retention and brand recall. For these products, brief information may be all that is required to inform the consumers about the product, but maybe most importantly as to how this product can solve their problems.

Below is a print ad for Colgate Toothpaste. This is a good example of where humour may be detrimental to the communicated message. Alternatively, succinct information is all that is required to inform the consumer as to how this 'blue good' will solve their problem.

Empirical research supports the theory of Sternthal and Craig (1973) with regards to the use of humour in advertising and the affects of this in both attention and brand recall. Spotts et al. (1997) report that the use of incongruity-based humour were only effective for yellow goods, had no benefit for white goods and actually lowered performance for ‘blue’ and ‘red’ goods. Thus, while incongruity based humour is used most prevalently in humorous advertising, its use may only be justified for ‘yellow goods’ and is potentially detrimental when selling ‘red’ or ‘blue goods.’ It thus comes as no surprise that Spotts et al. (1997) outline that in their research humour is implemented in 18.1% of ads for’ yellow goods’ while only 5.5% for ‘red goods.’ Additionally, ‘yellow goods’ were the most likely to be humour dominant while ‘white goods’ were more likely to be message dominant and information focused (Spotts et al., 1997).

Practical Implications:

· Humour that is related to the product or marketing message is better equipped to engage a consumers attention, increase message comprehension and improve advertising persuasiveness.

 · The use of humour in advertising is most successful when marketing low involvement, feeling products (yellow goods; such as beer, confectionery etc). Here, humour may be used to engage attention, develop a brand image and distract consumers from potential counterarguments to a purchasing decision.

· Humour may also be used in message dominant ads for higher involvement tools (white goods such as washing machines and car tyres). For these products, humour can be used to engage consumers attention but as a secondary communication tool to the information that is relevant for a purchasing decision.

· Advertisers should be wary when considering humour to market both 'red' and 'blue goods.' For these products humour may either be perceived as threatening or alternatively, distract the consumer from information recall that is vital for purchasing decisions.

Weinberger and Gulas (1992) outline that as much as 24.4% of prime time advertising in the United States is intended to be humorous. This is a staggering percentage considering what little is really known about the use of humour as a successful marketing tool. There is no doubt however, that we all enjoy a funny ad. There are television programs comprised solely of these commercials. What is harder to determine however, is the extent to which these commercials actually influence attitudinal and behavioural changes, ultimately ending in product sales. A better understanding of the factors contributing to the successful implementation of humorous advertisements will only improve this.


Alden, D. L., Wayne, D. H., & Lee, C. (1993). Identifying global and culture specific dimensions of humour in advertising: A multicultural analysis. Journal of Marketing, 57(2), 64-75.

Berlyne, D. E. (1972). Humour and its kin, in The Psychology of Humour, J. H. Goldstein, Academic, New York.

Herold, D. (1963). Humour in advertising and how to make it pay. McGraw hill, New York.

Lammers, B. H., Liebowitz, L. Seymour, G. E., & Hennessey, J. E. (1983). Humour and cognitive responses to advertising stimuli: A trace consolidation approach. Journal of Business Research, 11 (2), 173-185.

Nevo, O., Keinan, G., & Teshimovsky-Arditi, M. (1993). Humour and pain tolerance. International Journal of Humor Research, 6(1), 71–88.

Powell, J. P., & Andresen, L. W. (1985). Humour and teacher in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 10(1), 79-90.

Schmidt, S. R. (1994). Effects of humor on sentence memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(4), 953-967.

Speck, P. S. (1987), "On Humour and Humour in Advertising." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas Tech University.

Spotts, H. E., Weinberger, M. G., & Parsons, A. L. (1997). Assessing the use and impact of humor on advertising effectiveness: A contingency approach. Journal of Advertising, 26(3), 17-32.

Sternthal, B. & Craig, C. S. (1973). Humor in advertising. Journal of Marketing, 37, 12-18.

Weinberger, W. G., & Gulas, C. S. (1992 ). The impact of humour in advertising: A review. Journal of Advertising, 21(4), 36 – 59.

Weisfeld, G. E. (1993). The adaptive value of humor and laughter. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14, 141-169.

Whipple, T. W., Courtney, A. E. (1981). How men and women judge humor: Advertising guidelines for action and research. In J. H. Leigh C. R. Martin Jr., (, Current issues and research in advertising (pp. 43–56). Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Graduate School of Business Administration.

ZenithOptimedia., 2007. "Global adspend 2007," Vol. 2007.


  1. Really brilliant article - truely an impressive amount of research and thought went into it. Will be stopping back for more.

  2. Thanks a lot... really an amazing article... I wish u good luck in life.

  3. Thanks all - will be blogging more soon!