Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 129
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Funny Ads

An Investigation into humor reveals a new factor that helps explain its affect on advertising response.

When you see an ad that tries to be funny, does it make you laugh? Sometimes? But does it influence your attitudes about the ad, the product, or the business?

Ah . . . that's the question!

You may be surprised to learn that 50% of all advertisements include some appeal to humor, and you'd think this huge investment would be founded on a secure research foundation that demonstrated it's value. But if you thought this was true, you'd be wrong. The research investigating humor in ads reveals contradictory effects that point to additional factors, as yet unidentified, that intrude into the experiments and ruin the results. So if you've been using humor in ads for your business, you have cause to be a little nervous.

Recently, the search began to identify these confounding factors and to get a better understanding of how humor might help us. For example, researchers have found existing attitudes about the brand to be important. They've also found certain types of products lend themselves to humor better than others.

Yong Zhang, from Hofstra University, recently made a new contribution to this effort by investigating a quality of the people targeted to receive the advertising message, their tendency to think when they view an ad.

We all vary in our tendency to think. Some people seek out opportunities and consider it fun, for example, working crossword puzzles. Other people avoid such activities. Zhang guessed that humor would work best with the latter group, and he was right.

Zhang experimented with 240 undergraduate business students. He measured their intrinsic interest in exercising their brains, then he exposed them to print ads that varied both the appeal to humor with cartoon characters, and the appeal to thinking by listing persuasive arguments and product features.

People with little intrinsic interest in exercising their brains reacted much better to humorous ads. People with much intrinsic interest in thinking reacted much better to the persuasive ads.

Zhang explained the findings: People react to humor without exerting effort. A funny ad is just funny. So people with a tendency to avoid thinking resist analyzing ads for content. Instead, they associate the pleasant sensation of amusement with the product and develop favorable impressions that lead to buying intentions. Conversely, people with a tendency to think analyze an ad's contents, but they're frustrated by humor. It distracts them from the task at hand and replaces the details they seek. They develop unfavorable impressions that negatively influence buying intentions.

The practical implication of Zhang's research is to segment the market and direct humorous ads at the non-thinking group and persuasive ads at the thinking group. Now that may seem impossible, but consider yourself. You're much more likely to feel like thinking on Monday morning rather than on Friday afternoon. A humorous radio ad would work better during your drive home after a hard week. You're also more likely to avoid thinking while watching a silly situation comedy or reading a supermarket tabloid. But a National Geographic magazine would find you in a mood to critically consider a persuasive ad listing product features.

Zhang's findings are fresh, and no follow up research has been completed to justify placing humorous ads according to these guidelines. But then, no research exists to justify any other guidelines either. If your target is women, and you want to use humor, catch them when they're tired and want a break from thinking. It's something to try.

Reference: Zhang, Yong (1996). The Effect of Humor in Advertising: An Individual-Difference Perspective. Psychology and Marketing, 16 (6), 531-545.

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