Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 212
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Humor in Product Ads

Researcher finds an interaction effect that can spoil ads.

We reached an advertising milestone of sorts this past January. People in my acquaintance, meeting in the days following the football superbowl championship, spoke more about the commercials shown during the game than they did about the football game itself. I've no doubt the same conversations took place in countless gatherings all around the world.

This milestone is a testament to the hard work and the brilliant minds who created these ads and to the millions of good dollars business people risked to put it all together.

Risked for what?

Well, we all know the answer to that question. Although these ads were humorous and wonderfully entertaining, they had another purpose: to persuade us to make certain purchasing decisions. This goal is the subject of much research.

Superbowl ads, or any ads for that matter, are created by people who inform themselves with the latest research findings in persuasion, and Thomas Cline, from West Virginia Wesleyan college, recently made a contribution.

Cline investigated the interaction of humor and persuasive product claims in print ads and their effect on attitudes toward the ad and toward the brand. He worked with a type of product that no one needs, a product that only exists out of sheer whimsy: bubble gum. People buy it on a lark, and advertising is essential to keep it moving.

Ads created for brands in this product class often include humor. Humor makes the ads more appealing, and it holds people's attention. Here's a question: Is it possible to spoil these ad's persuasive impact by including other elements in the ad?

Research into persuasion is vast, and Cline noticed some recent studies that seemed to question the use of humor. They suggested that strongly worded product claims may reduce an ad's persuasive impact if humor is included, but there was no explanation why this might be true.

Cline conducted an experiment, and he found that it was true. Humorous bubble gum print ads that carried strongly worded product claims were less persuasive than the same humorous ads carrying weakly worded product claims. There was a difference in attitudes toward the ad and attitudes toward the brand. This finding is quite illogical, but then, much of persuasion is illogical.

Cline found two independent forces at work in the ads he tested. The first he calls counterarguing. When people are exposed to product claims, they often react with arguments opposing these claims. For example, the claim "recommended by more dentists than any other toothpaste" might very likely trigger a silent, counterargument such as "every dentist except mine," or "every dentist you paid to say so." The more strongly worded the product claim, the more likely a counterargument will be aroused in a person's mind, and the stronger it will be.

The second force Cline believes is operating in these ads is distraction. Humor is distracting. It calls attention to itself and calls attention away from product claims.

When weak product claims combine with humor, the distraction of humor carries the primary persuasive message. For useless products like bubble gum, this humor stimulates and molds attitudes that lead to an acceptance of this product and a willingness to part with spare change to purchase it as the opportunity arises.

When strong product claims combine with humor in this product class, the distraction of humor must compete with counterarguing, and counterarguing usually prevails. These strongly worded ads stimulate strong counterarguments, and just when a clear consideration of claim verses counterargument would be expected to come to a resolution, humor distracts the person's attention, and the counterargument prevails. It was, after all, an argument that originated in the person's mind.

The conclusion is clear, even if it is illogical. If humor is employed, use weakly worded product claims. If strongly worded product claims are employed, don't use humor.

Now, explain this to the person who writes copy for your ads.

Reference: Cline, Thomas W., and James J. Kellaris (1999) The Joint Impact of Humor and Argument Strength in a Print Advertising Context: A Case for Weaker Arguments. Psychology and Marketing, 16 (1), 69-86.

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