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Analysis Humor In Advertising Essay, Research Paper

Humor and Advertising

I. Introduction

Advertising is one of the critical marketing variables which marketers use to differentiate products in a cluttered marketplace. In order to increase the effectiveness of advertising for a product, advertising messages should be unique and meaningful. This concurs with the von Restorff effect, which concludes that interference is minimized by the presentation of a unique item in a group of similar items. Companies have attempted to use many vehicles to create this differentiation effect. One such vehicle is the employment of humor.

The use of humor in advertising constitutes billions of dollars in spending each year (Campbell et al. 44). Furthermore, the popularity of humor is evident in the fact that 24.4% of television advertisements attempt to be humorous (Alden & Hoyer 29). However, while humor has attained popularity in advertising, its use is continuously being debated. The reason for this debate is that there are a number of both positive and negative effects which can be attributed to the use of humor.

Therefore, the purpose of this research paper is to methodically evaluate the use of humor by examining the broad range of research which has been conducted on its effectiveness in advertising. The studies chosen represent a combination of two types of research. First, empirical studies provide hypothesis-driven data which examine relationships between the effectiveness of humor and other relevant factors. Furthermore, much research on humor effectiveness has been conducted on representative advertising executives. The contention of researchers in these situations is that these executives have extensive experience in both failed and successful advertising campaigns. Thus, their actions and opinions provide valuable insight into the overall effectiveness and efficiency of humor in advertising.

These studies will be examined in relation to the effects of humor on the consumer information processing stages of attention and comprehension, as well as the effectiveness of humor messages in persuading customers to purchase a given product. Furthermore, the type of advertising medium and product factors will also be critically evaluated in order to uncover their existing relationships to humor effectiveness. All of these topics will be then integrated into the examination of various companies which have attempted to use humor in their advertising campaigns. Lastly, based on the relevant research, several key factors in utilizing humor successfully will be presented. These situations represent the necessary circumstances which should be present to increase the probability of an effective humorous advertising campaign.

II. Humor and Consumer Information Processing

A consumer s perception of the advertising is the crucial component in the purchase decision. Perception is accomplished through the three stage processing of information by consumers. The attention and comprehension stages are most important to marketers because they determine whether consumers will acknowledge, organize, and interpret the desired advertising message. In order to create a successful humor campaign, advertisers must examine the relative effects of humor during these two stages of consumer processing.

Humor and Attention

The effect of humor on attention has been studied through both interviewing methods and scientific research. A recent study showed that 94% of advertising executives agree that humor increases attention for an advertisement (Gulas & Weinberger 36). In terms of empirical evidence, there seems to be a consensus that advertising increases the level of attention (36). This fact is strongly presented in a study by Speck (1987) on the effects of advertising in four separate attention dimensions: initial attention, sustained attention, projected attention, and overall attention (36). Speck found that consumers had higher attention levels for humorous advertisements than non-humorous advertisements on all four of these dimensions (36).

Humor and Comprehension

The studies conducted to determine relationships between humor and comprehension have shown great disparity. For example, a literature study by Sternthal and Craig in 1973 found humor to have a completely negative effect on comprehension (Gulas & Weinberger 38). Conversely, in 1986, Stewart and Furse conducted a study using 1,000 television commercials, which seemed to explicitly confirm that humor increased comprehension (Campbell et al. 46).

In total, seventeen studies have been conducted examining this relationship. Six of these studies concluded that a positive relationship existed between humor and comprehension, while six suggested a negative relationship, and five showed neutral results (Gulas & Weinberger 38). Thus, the general conclusion is that can be inferred from these different studies is that other extraneous factors impact the effect of humor on comprehension. Various studies have identified factors which could have caused the inconsistency of the studies, an example of which is humor type.

In 1987, Speck conducted direct research in the attempt to uncover any relationships between humor type and comprehension. Speck s research uncovered that comic wit had a negative effect on comprehension, while other humor types (i.e. satire) had positive effects on comprehension (Gulas & Weinberger 38). The importance of this study is that it demonstrates an example of a factor that can have an effect on the comprehension level of humorous advertising.

III. Humor and Persuasion


Although consumers may process humorous information about a product, the effects of this information on persuasion are of paramount importance. Advertisers are interested in the extent to which humor messages can alter beliefs and attitudes toward a particular product. There have been a number of studies conducted to assess the relationships between the two variables of humor and persuasion. Some studies have demonstrated that humor has increased persuasion, but these studies tend to be qualified by gender, prior attitude, and the nature of the product or event promoted (Gulas & Weinberger 56). Thus, the general conclusion of these studies is that humor does not provide any significant advantage in terms of persuasion (56).

However, although a strong relationship does not exist between humor and persuasion, advertisers and marketing researchers have examined several variables which examine the situations for the both effective and ineffective uses of humor in the persuasion process. One model used to examine the such situations is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), which deals with the level of consumer involvement in a purchasing decision.

Elaboration Likelihood Model

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) examines two different routes to persuasion based on the level of consumer involvement. The central route to processing occurs if a consumer is both motivated and able to process the information. Moreover, central route processing occurs in situations of high consumer involvement. Attitudes formed through this route tend to be relatively enduring and predictive of behavior (Petty et al. 135).

Conversely, the peripheral route to processing occurs when a consumer is either unmotivated or is unable to process the information. In these situations, consumers rely on peripheral cues when forming their attitudes. Attitudes formed via this route have the opposite characteristics of attitudes formed through the central route, and tend to be relatively temporary and unpredictive of behavior (Petty et al. 136).

Thus, the ELM relates to humor in advertising in that humor can be viewed as a peripheral cue. Therefore, consumers who process information along the central route will not be persuaded by humor, but rather by the argument strength of the advertisement. However, humor can be effective when processing occurs along the peripheral route, if the humor utilized is processed as a positive cue.

For example, according to ELM studies, the peripheral route is utilized when personal relevance is low. Thus, when personal relevance is low, humor can be used as an effective peripheral cue in the persuasion process. Nonetheless, as the personal relevance increases for a consumer in a situation, he or she tends to scrutinize the content of a message.

Furthermore, a study by Yong Zhang (1996) examined the relation between a person s need for cognition and the use of humor. The need for cognition is based on the value an individual consumer places on directing effort toward thinking. Zhang concluded that there was a direct correlation between this need for cognition and the effectiveness of humor in advertisements. Humor does not work as a peripheral cue for individuals with a high need for cognition, as they are motivated to thoroughly examine message content (Zhang 17). However, individuals with a low need for cognition do not have the motivation to investigate an advertisement and, thus, can be persuaded by a peripheral cue such as humor (17). These conclusions based on the ELM are especially relevant to marketers in that they identify the situations where humor can be used effectively.

IV. Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Humor

Humor and Product Type

One of the factors that has been identified in numerous studies as having a significant influence on the effectiveness of humor in advertising is product type. For example, studies have been conducted which examined the effects of using humor for real as opposed to fictional products. Research conducted on this subject has generally agreed that in terms of both attention and comprehension, humorous advertising for real products was effective, while humor used for fictional products was generally ineffective (Gulas & Weinberger 38). This also complies with the consensus that humorous advertisements are more successful for existing products than for new products (54). Also, as previously mentioned, studies have demonstrated that humor is more effective for low involvement products (See the section on the Elaboration Likelihood Model).

Recent advertising research has looked at the effectiveness of using humor, based on the frequency of humor usage in advertising for various product type categories. The contention used in this study is that the frequency of usage correlates with the relative effectiveness of a product type. Thus, both positive and negative advertising experiences shape the decisions which advertisers make when deciding whether to use humor in an advertising campaign.

Products which seem to be best suited for humorous advertising messages are nondurable, day-to day rewards (Campbell et al. 49) such as snack foods, desserts, beer, alcohol, [and] tobacco (47). This finding is also consistent with the views of advertising executives, 70% of which believe that nondurables are best suited for humor (Campbell et al. 45). Researchers have also identified several characteristics which define these products.

As indicated by the ELM, the purchasing of these products is characterized by low motivation to process information, based on the low purchase risk and routine purchase nature (Campbell et al. 49). Moreover, consumers use a heuristic processing style when evaluating communication mediums on one of these products (48). Also, the motivation to purchase these products is also positive in nature, and they have a feel good orientation (48). Finally, products best-suited for humorous advertising have mostly short-term emotional benefits (48).

The products which are worst suited for humorous advertising are durable goods such as fashion clothing and accessories, hair coloring, motorcycle, sports car, fashion luggage, jewelry (Campbell et al. 47). These products contrast sharply in their characteristics as compared to the best suited products for humor usage. First, the higher product risk of these items contributes to a high degree of motivation to process information (47). Furthermore, researchers classify these produces as having an expressive orientation (48). The benefits obtained by consumers from these products are some, long-term emotional benefits . This also contrast with the short-term benefits of the nondurables. Moreover, information obtained by consumers is examined using a systematic processing style (48). Finally, these items do have one characteristic in common with the previously mentioned nondurables: a purchasing situation of positive motivation.

Humor and Type of Medium

There are three traditional types of advertising mediums utilized by marketers: television, radio, and print. The relative effectiveness of humor can be differentiated based on the medium type. In 1984, Madden and Weinberger sent surveys to top advertising executives in the United States to uncover relationships between humor and medium type (Campbell et al. 45). Most surveyed felt that humor was extremely appropriate for television (88%), and radio (84%) advertisements (45). However, only 40% of those surveyed felt that humor was appropriate for print advertisements (45). This corresponds with humor usage by type, which varies by medium type, with television and radio utilizing humor two to three times more than print media (54).

The conclusion for this information is that: Print is reader-paced, allowing more message detail and explanation, while radio and TV are media-paced, passively received by audiences waiting to be entertained. (Campbell et al. 51). Thus, the active nature of television and radio allows it to easier entertain audiences.

VI. Applications of Humor in Advertising

Humorous advertising campaigns have been utilized by many different companies and its popularity is increasing. The purpose of this section is to examine different companies which have used humor and assess their usage based on the preceding cited research.

The most common examples of successful humorous advertising campaigns relate to snack foods and beer. These products are included in the previously mentioned day-to-day rewards category which is generally identified as a favorable category for humorous advertising. For example, Mars Inc. recently was faced with declining sales due to a shift in consumer purchasing and consumption patterns (O Leary 46). For the most part, the purchase of a chocolate bar does not evoke a strong motivation to process information. Thus, based on the ELM, consumers tend to utilize the peripheral route with this type of purchase, and humor can be a beneficial cue utilized by companies.

An example of the strategy employed by Mars Inc. is its recent advertisements for M & M s. This advertising boasts three-dimensional wise-cracking M & M characters (O Leary 46). In the first eight months of the humorous campaign, the M & M product experienced 3% sales growth, while its general likability also increased (46).

Furthermore, in terms of consumer nondurables, Coca-Cola has reevaluated its position and developed a group of humorous advertisements for Diet Coke. For example, the dehydrated commercial pictures a man who is doing garden work. After completing his work, he appears emaciated and sits in a chair. However, after receiving a Coke, his body suddenly returns to normal as he regains his body mass (Lippert 26).

Moreover, beer is another nondurable, day-to-day reward which research has shown is well suited for humorous advertising (Campbell et al. 49). In fact, the view of some analysts is that beer goes with comedy almost as well as it does with pretzels (Soter 27). Budweiser has been especially receptive to this thought an created numerous advertising campaigns based on humor for Bud Light. A few years ago, Bud Light used its I said a Bud Light humorous campaign (Alden et al. 65). In these commercials, individuals who had requested a Bud Light were greeted with a number of different actual lighting devices (i.e. a flashlight). More recently, Budweiser developed its I Love you, man! group of advertisements, which depict Johnny: a man who is continuously denied in his eternal search for one Bud Light.

While the general research on humor supports its effectiveness with these nondurable items, other companies have attempted to use humor with durable goods. For example, Multimedia Design Corporation s mPOWER product is a computer software program used for presentations ( Only mPOWER 18). The company used humor for this product in a print advertisement. In this situation, while humor should increase consumer attention to the advertisement, its effects on comprehension and persuasion should be minimal. The main reason for this again relates back to the ELM, as this type of computer software involves a relatively high degree of consumer involvement. Consequently, information will be processed along the central route, and the effects of humor as a peripheral cue will be limited. Thus, Multimedia Design should have focused more on the product attributes to fulfill consumers high importance on evaluating pertinent information.

VII. Key Success Factors

As is evident from the cited research, there are a plethora of factors which influence the effectiveness of humor in advertising. Thus, companies need to recognize the interactions of these factors in order to create a successful humorous advertising campaign. The following discussion highlights the key success factors which should be considered when utilizing humor in advertising.

First, research has demonstrated that humor is most effective when it relates to the product. In the 1984 Madden & Weinberger study of executives from the top 150 advertising agencies in the country, 88% agreed with the statement: Humor works best when it is related to a product (Campbell et al. 45). Moreover, Speck empirically concluded in 1991 that advertising messages that do not explicitly relate to the topic may be detrimental to advertising effectiveness (Zhang 15).

Marketers must also thoroughly understand the target market when using humor (Tyson 175). Furthermore, humor is more likely to enhance recall, evaluation, and purchase intention when the humorous message coincides with ad objectives, is well-integrated with those objectives, and is viewed appropriate for the product category (Alden et al. 64).

Another important factor was previously cited in regards to the ELM, as studies have demonstrated that low involvement and feeling-oriented products are best suited for humor (Gulas & Weinberger 57). Finally, the research by Gulas & Weinberger concluded that the use [of humor] is more successful with existing rather than new products (57).

VIII. Conclusion

The effectiveness of humor depends on a number of extraneous factors and its use is debated among researchers. Most researchers agree that the general benefits of humor include: increasing the audience s attention, creating positive emotions, and enhancing overall attitude toward the ad (Zinkhan IV), while its ability to increase comprehension and persuasion is limited (Zhang 15).

Moreover, the general consensus of this available research is that researchers need to ask when the use of humor in advertising is effective, rather than the more common question of whether humor enhances advertising effectiveness (Basu & Chattopadhyay 466). Thus, companies and advertising agencies must be very careful to thoroughly examine product, medium, and audience factors before creating humorous advertising campaigns. Furthermore, in order to use humor effectively, the relevant consumer behavior topics (i.e. level of involvement) should be examined.

Works Cited

Alden, Dana L., and Hoyer, Wayne D. An Examination of Cognitive Factors Related to

Humorousness in Television Advertising. Journal of Advertising June 1993. 29-38.

Alden, Dana L., Hoyer, Wayne D., and Lee, Chol. Identifying Global and Culture-Specific Dimensions of Humor in Advertising: A Multicultural Analysis. Journal of Marketing April 1993. 64-75.

Basu, Kunal, and Chattopadhyay, Amitava. Humor in Advertising: The Moderating Role of

Prior Brand Evaluation. Journal of Marketing Research November 1990. 466-476.

Campbell, Leland, Parsons, Amy L., Spotts, Harlan, and Weinberger, Marc G. The Use of

Humor in Different Advertising Media. Journal of Advertising Research May/June 1995. 44-56.

Gulas. Charles S., and Weinberger, Marc G. The Impact of Humor in Advertising: A Review.

Journal of Advertising December 1992. 35-59.

Lippert, Barbara. Still the Real Thing. ADWEEK Eastern Edition 28 August 1995. 26.

Moscov, Josh. Humor. The Business Journal July 1995. 70-73.

O Leary, Noreen. New Life on Mars. Brandweek 6 May 1996. 44-46.

Only mPOWER Copy Plays Straight Man. Business Marketing February 1995. 18.

Petty, Richard E., Cacioppo, John T., and Schumann, David. Central and Peripheral Routes to

Advertising Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Involvement. Journal of Consumer Research September 1983. 135-146.

Soter, Tom. What s Funny. SHOOT 28 July 1995. 27-30.

Tyson, Elaine. How to Use Humor to Get Them to Subscribe. Folio: Special Sourcebook

Issue 1995 1995. 175.

Zhang, Yong. Responses to Advertising: The Moderating Effects of Need for Cognition.

Journal of Advertising Spring 1996 15-32.

Zinkhan, George M. The Use of Parody in Advertising. Journal of Advertising Research

September 1994. III-VIII.

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