Trials and Tribulations of Humor in Advertising

Look through a reel of award winning commercials or a set of award winning print ads and one thing seems to stand out as irrefutably true - most are funny. Laughter is indeed the best medicine and we all love to be entertained by the comedic. There are some really positive things about using humor.

Bring on the Clowns!

First, humor is fun and we like to approach fun things. As such, people are more likely to attend to commercials if they know they're designed to be funny.

Second, humor relaxes audiences and gets their defenses down. If you think your target audience is going to argue against your message, humor can put them off guard and make it less likely that they will think badly of your ad or brand.

Second, humor can put people into a good mood, and this good mood can make them like your ad and even your brand better than before.

Third, humor can give your brand a more comfortable and less formal feeling. That's good if that's what you are after in terms of image.

What's So Funny About my Product?

But humor can and does backfire, particularly if used for an inappropriate product. Which products work best? Research shows it's consumer nondurables and business services, familiar and established products, frequently purchased and low priced products. Corporate advertising, industrial advertising and advertising of sensitive goods or topics and advertising of new products are least well suited to humor, particularly when the product category is risky and involves a lot of thought prior to purchase.

Does the Humor Match My Target?

Let's also realize that the word "humorous" includes a variety of techniques-puns, slapstick, satire, irony-and different techniques require different things on the part of the audience.

Puns, for example, require a certain amount of attention and thinking on the part of the audience in order for them to "get the joke." Consider, for example, the pun used in United Way's "Don't put all you begs in one ask it." Takes time to think about it, doesn't it? Furthermore, puns like these seem more appropriate for consumers who are more intellectually inclined-those willing to stop and say, "well, let me think about that."

Slapstick humor, on the other hand (like Little Caesar's "boot camp for training pizza deliverers") borders or the silly, and by virtue of the fact that it's a caricature of some familiar aspect of life it requires less attention and thinking to get it. The intellectuals are unlikely to go for the slapstick - it's too silly. But the young are likely to love it.

All forms of humor require the consumers "get it." But they can't "get it" if they don't have the knowledge base to understand what it means. An ad featuring Stevie Wonder saying "before I'll ride with a drunk, I'll drive myself" requires knowing who Stevie Wonder is, knowing that he is blind, and getting the joke that he must be really serious about this if he'd rather drive himself that have someone who is drunk drive him around.

Also, you've got to make sure that you're not shooting yourself in the foot by alienating some of your potential customers with humor that's seen as crude, offensive, or inappropriate. We laughed like crazy at Wendy's Where's the Beef Commercial until we found out that seniors were irate at being portrayed as crotchety old people in the ad. What some people regard as funny is often offensive to others - so watch out before you step on people's toes.

This is a real issue in advertising. Studies have found that men have higher attention scores to humorous commercials than women, and Caucasians have higher attention scores than African Americans. What this signals is that advertisers have a tendency to bias toward things that men and whites find funny and tend less to cater to the funny bone of other potential target consumers.

How is Humor Incorporated into the Message?

It's really important to remember that while people like to attend to things that are funny, your ad is a complex cast of things and just because consumers are paying attention to the humor in the ad doesn't mean they are paying attention to your brand name or your message. Humor can help message comprehension and brand name recall, but ONLY when the humor is directly related to the message or name. Fed Ex's fast talking executive did a great job conveying that Fed Ex helps us keep up the fast paced world.

PayDay's print ad showing an elephant with a blow torch in his trunk trying to burn his way into the back of a truck filled with PayDay candybars cleverly reinforces the message "Can't get enough peanuts?" In both cases, the humor isn't incidental to the product or the name. It's directly related to it.

Do I Have to See This Again?

Humor does create liking for an ad, to be sure. However, liking can be short lived. In other words, one of the problems with humorous commercials is that they wear out quickly.

Makes sense, doesn't it. The first time you hear a joke you laugh yourself silly. The next time it's funny. It still cracks a smile by the third time, but slowly it's not funny anymore.

Why? The reason is that humor invariably works by surprise. What makes something funny is very much wrapped up in the fact that we didn't expect it to happen. But if we've seen an ad or commercial lots of times, we already know the joke-there's no surprise and hence it's not funny anymore.

Humorous commercials can therefore quite expensive because you have to replace them often with other (perhaps humorous) commercials.

Bottom line ---- before you use any type of humor then, ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • Is humor appropriate for the type of product I am selling?
  • Does this type of humor require a lot of attention and thinking on the part of my customer?
  • Is it likely that my audience will devote the attention necessary to process this type of humor?
  • Will my target audience get it?
  • Will they be offended by it?
  • Does it speak to everybody?
  • Is humor related to my brand name and/or message?
  • Do I have the resources to change my ads frequently to prevent wearout?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, you may have a winner on your hands. But before you decide to be funny, be smart and realize the intricacies involved in the appropriate use of humor.

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Dr. Deborah J. MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, and a co-author of Brand Admiration: Build a Business People Love. She has consulted with companies and the government in the areas of consumer behavior and branding. She is theory development editor at the Journal of Marketing, and former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. Professor MacInnis has served as president of the Association for Consumer Research and vice-president of conferences and research for the American Marketing Association's Academic Council. She has received the Journal of Marketing's Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She is the co-author of a leading textbook on consumer behavior and is co-editor of several edited volumes on branding.