Every year about this time, we start thinking about an exciting television event: the Super Bowl. I’m excited because it’s the biggest football game of the year. The rest of the family just likes to watch the commercials. No doubt, some of those commercials are hilarious, and there’s often more conversation about the commercials than the game itself. Companies spend millions buying advertising time, and millions more developing commercials that will stand out from the pack on Super Bowl Sunday. Other than watching your favorite team lose, there’s nothing more disappointing than seeing an old commercial during the game.
But don’t you sometimes wonder whether advertisers actually get their money’s worth? Do people really remember the product being advertised? Or do they just remember that guy getting hit in the crotch repeatedly with dense, spherical objects?
Surprisingly, there actually hasn’t been much research on the effectiveness of humor in ads. Instead, most research has focused on expectancy: if something in an ad is unexpected, it’s more likely to be remembered than something we expect. Even more importantly for advertisers, the unexpected event in the ad must be directly related to their product. Here’s an ad that does a pretty good job of that:
In this ad, the unexpected event is the unveiling of the product itself. But many advertisers don’t offer quite such a direct connection between the humor and the product being advertised:
You may remember this ad, but did you remember what was being advertised?
Humor is sometimes funny because it’s unexpected, but it’s also often quite predictable: Many people still laugh the fifth time Justin Timberlake’s stunt double gets crunched in the groin.
So what’s the relationship between humor, expectancy, and whether an ad is remembered? James Kellaris and Thomas Cline showed 263 students one of two different cartoon “ads” for one of two invented products: Windsor Coffee and Jubilee Coffee. Previous testing had shown that people expect Jubilee to be a funnier coffee brand than Windsor. Both versions of the ad had humorous headlines, but only one version was directly related to the claims the ad was making about the product. Kellaris & Cline don’t share the actual ads in their report, so we don’t get to find out how “funny” these ads really were. This shouldn’t matter, since everyone saw the same ads, with just the product names changed.
Immediately after viewing the ads, the students were tested for what they recalled. Here are the results:
So for Windsor Coffee, where there was less of an expectation for the ad to be funny, a humorous ad that was relevant to the claim was more memorable than when the humor was not relevant. For Jubilee Coffee, when there was more of an expectation of seeing a funny ad, the reverse occurred: viewers remembered fewer claims when the humor was related to the claim!
But maybe some people are just less interested in humor than others. The researchers tested the students on a “need for humor” scale which measures their interest in humor. If you’re more interested in humor, will humorous ads be more effective? Here are those results.
The students were divided into two groups based on their need for humor test scores. As you can see, there was a strong relationship between need for humor and the number of claims recalled. If you have a low need for humor, you’re more likely to remember a funny ad when humor is unexpected, and less likely to remember funny ads when humor is expected. For those with high need for humor, there was no significant difference in the number of claims recalled, whether humor was expected or unexpected.
Of course, this opens a paradox for advertisers. Clearly humor works best when it’s unexpected and related to the product. But if an brand develops a reputation for producing humorous ads, whether it’s Bud Light or Mutual of Omaha, won’t viewers eventually begin to expect humor regardless of how serious the company’s line of business?
This study does a good job isolating one aspect of humor in advertising, but of course the dilemma of real-world advertisers is much more complex. They must appeal to customers who can easily fast-forward or mute commercials. They must attract attention long enough for viewers to get to the punch line. And they must do all of this while being memorable and selling a product. Still, it’s fascinating to see how just one aspect of creating a good advertisement depends so much on a viewer’s expectations and inclinations.
James J. Kellaris, Thomas W. Cline (2007). Humor and ad memorability: On the contributions of humor expectancy, relevancy, and need for humor Psychology and Marketing, 24 (6), 497-509 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20170