The Case for Comedy
Now, comedy is obviously nothing new - even Ancient Greek texts describe “professional jesters” and jokebooks, and a Greek philosopher named Democritus was known and loved as “the laughing philosopher.”
And there’s a reason it’s tried and true. It works, and - when executed effectively - it’s one of the most effective ways to really get through to someone. No really. Studies have been done.
- Across all forms of advertising, humor has been found to have a positive effect on attention. This has been further proven in lab settings, where funny ads were found to grab and keep attention more than all kinds of non-funny content.2
- It has been shown to help with learning. In one experiment, researchers studied two statistics classes. In one class, the teacher made the material funny, while in the other class he kept it straightforward. The students in the funny class scored an average of 10 points higher on their exams, proving that when things are funny you have a better time and you learn more. 2
- Humor is linked to higher recall aka people remember ads more if they’re funny.
- It’s shareable. Think of the last ad you shared. Was it funny? We’d bet on it. There are two big reasons for this: first, people love content that makes them feel big emotions like anger, awe, inspiration, or humor. On top of that, the human brain wants to see the positive and share it, partly because we want to portray our best (read, our funniest) selves on social media. And one of the biggest, most positive emotions out there is humor.
- 86% of people say authenticity is important when deciding what brands they like and support, and funny brands are often seen as more authentic, relatable, and human.
- When done correctly, “humorous advertising is more likely to overcome sales resistance, and enhance message persuasiveness.” 1
Let’s dive a little more into the why and the how behind humor.
The How: Understanding The Science Behind Humor
So it works - but why, and how?
There are scientific, cognitive reasons why humor just “clicks” in the mind, why it’s more memorable, and why it makes people feel good.
Here’s a little more of the science behind that:
Our Brain Likes The Structure of Jokes
First, studies suggest that people’s brains enjoy the slight surprise that comes with putting a humorous, unexpected spin on a standard product - like, say, insurance (more on this later).
This goes back to what’s called Raskin’s theory of humor, which argues that jokes produce a mirthful response by providing cognitive, structural contrasts between expected and unexpected situations. Hear is the definition of mirthful if you also didn’t know.
Anyways, where were we? Yes, contrasts. Here are some:
- The actual/existing versus nonexisting
- The normal/expected versus abnormal/unexpected, and
- The possible/plausible versus impossible/implausible
Examples of these contrasts can be found in insurance ads across the country:
- Allstate’s “mayhem commercials” are particularly good at exemplifying the normal/expected vs the abnormal/unexpected. In one commercial, actor Dean Winters plays Tina Fey’s “mother-in-law.” He roasts her and gives her a hard time throughout the ad, saying things like “I’m your mother-in-law and I have to question your every move… like this left turn. Do you always have to drive this slow?” Fey responds to the criticism with quips like “How did you make someone I love?” There’s immediate contrast here between the normal/expected versus the abnormal/unexpected - you expect to hear these stereotyped mother-in-law gripes, but you don’t expect them from a stubbled man in old lady makeup and gaudy gold earrings.
- Farmers, on the other hand, likes to play with the contrast of actual/existing versus nonexisting. Their Gold Medal Grizzly commercial discusses an actual/existing insurance claim of a grizzly bear tearing up a customer’s pool by focusing on the nonexisting, funny version of events from the bear’s perspective (in which he’s in a speedo and about to complete an Olympic race).
- Finally, Geico plays up the possible/plausible versus impossible/implausible contrast in its commercials featuring Maxwell the pig. In one commercial, the narrator asks, “Can Geico really save you 15% or more on car insurance? Did the little piggy really cry wee wee wee all the way home?” before cutting to Maxwell the pig screeching “wee” from a car seat while his exhausted and overstimulated “family” looks on. Saving on car insurance? Plausible. A pig actually screaming “wee” from your backseat? Implausible.
And it works. Each of these commercials provides contrast and takes an unexpected turn, and, “the very process of resolving the incongruity is thought to be rewarding and thus may contribute to the resulting positive affect.”
In other words, we like that “what in the world” or “that’s so stupid” response to a good and unexpected joke. If you think of your favorite joke, you’ll probably find a similar unexpected element. Not gonna ask you to close your eyes, okay???
Humor Increases Liking, Liking Increases Sales
Lots of studies link humor to increased liking, both of the ads themselves and of the brand that’s running the ads. What’s more? Liking is the strongest indicator of a commercial's sales success, out-performing all other measures. In one study, likable companies had more sales than their unlikeable counterparts a whopping 87% of the time.
Similarly, more than half of consumers say they remember an ad more if it is from a brand they know and like. The point? Your audience has to like you to buy from you, and humor is the best way to do it.
All Humor Scientifically Grabs Attention
Ok - this next part goes in the weeds a little bit, but I’ll get to the point as quickly as I can (plus, this is a science article, right?).
There are many processes behind humor, along with various types of humor. The processes include arousal-safety, incongruity-resolution, and humorous disparagement. The insurance ad examples I gave are incongruity-resolution. Here’s a quick rundown of the other two:
- Arousal-safety: This kind of humor essentially stresses you out then calms you down. Not cool, but it works. An example would be an ad that shows 51 missed calls from your mom (arousing/stress-inducing, to be sure) only to reveal that she’s just calling about Beyonce’s new music video (safe/funny).
- Humorous disparagement: This kind of humor revolves around making fun of other people. Blondes are dumb… ha-ha.
These three processes may act alone or in combination to form five humor types:
- Comic wit (incongruity resolution),
- Sentimental humor (arousal-safety)
- Satire (incongruity-resolution and humorous disparagement)
- Sentimental comedy (arousal-safety and incongruity-resolution)
- Full comedy (arousal-safety, incongruity-resolution, and humorous disparagement).
Ok, so that was all the technical stuff - congrats, you made it through!
Now here’s the point: while some types of humor are more effective than others - studies show that full comedy is more effective at grabbing attention than sentimental comedy - all humor types outperformed non-humor on attention.
How to Get It Right
Now, you might be thinking ok, so I’ve got the stats, and I’ve seen the science - but humor is hard and risky. How could we possibly find content that’s going to be effectively funny to our entire audience?
Well, there are a few things to keep in mind:
It Has to Make Sense for What You’re Selling
An important research study found that “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 as appropriate for the product category.”
In other words, there is a right time and place. You have to:
Know when to be funny
Think sports games vs. History Channel Holocaust specials… if we have to tell you which one should be funny, then you’re worse than Mom’s with baby instagrams.
Know how to be funny to whom
Figuring out the flavor of humor you want to use is tricky because it’s so subjective.
Old people, for example, hate Tim and Eric - but these ads crushed for Purple Mattress’ Millennial audience. Similarly, I’m 30 and I think Farmer’s commercials are dumb, but I guess others don’t because they won’t stop airing them. I also guess they’re old.
Yeah, some things are funny to almost everyone (the best Super Bowl ads have proven that) but you’re rarely going to find that golden goose of comedy - so you might as well stop trying to.
Instead, figure out your audience and put on a show for them.
Be good at it
Once you know your niche and comedic approach, be honest with yourself. Are you funny? If no, then find someone who is ahem us.
It Works Best for Certain Products
Finally, before you get started, you have to know where to aim your comedic wand. Studies found that humor works better for:
- Low-Involvement products: Low-involvement products are routine purchases like snacks, food, toothpaste, and trash bags. These are items that don’t affect your self-image, that have lots of alternatives, and that don’t require much brand loyalty. Essentially, things don’t hit too close to home so people feel free to laugh about them. High involvement-feeling products - aka things that are expensive, that help you express yourself, or that have some risk - aren’t generally treated humorously. Think fashion, cars, a home renovation (Matthew McCaunahey never laughs in those Lincoln commercials, right? And nobody wants their latest fashion risk to be met with guffaws).
That said, there are exceptions to every rule and we’re no stranger to breaking them. For example, we made a fake product called Hubbies for a CPAP company. It’s a lifesize version of your snoring husband that you can beat the living shit out of.
- Existing products: Though humor is used with many types of products, it’s more successful with existing products. This makes sense - if you don’t even know what a new product is, you’re not going to “get” what’s funny about it. Plus, you don’t want the introduction of the product to be overshadowed by the humor of it.
Again, that said, rules are meant to be broken. Nobody had ever heard of Levy Electric but the video of me going up and trying to get tickets from actual cops got tons of press.
It Works Best For Certain Goals
We mentioned that humor is proven to effectively increase liking and grab audience attention. That said, it does not enhance source credibility - so if you’re looking to establish yourself as an authority, humor isn’t the way to go.2 This is the only rule that we stick by.
Similarly, humor doesn’t seem to offer an advantage over non-humor at increasing persuasion.2 The Allstate commercial on its own, probably doesn’t make you want to buy insurance on the spot - but it does make you remember the company and the commercial.
That’s why we pair the entertaining content with a funnel model. That way, you can be very effective at driving sales among new audiences. You just need to bring people in with something entertaining first, then follow up with retargeting and conversion ads to close the sale.
Almost done I swear!
If you’re looking for a way to boost your advertising, grab attention, and stay in the mind of your audience, you have to start incorporating comedy into your strategies. No, it’s not going to be the right choice for every campaign - sometimes we all have to be serious - but, in many instances, it is going to provide a boost that you simply can’t get with other tones.
Need help getting started? Well we just so happen to be comedy ad agency, and we’re the best at what we do, because it’s all we do.
- Humor us at gush.agency