Repetition, Social Settings, Perceived Humor, and Wearout

George M. Zinkhan, University of Houston
Betsy D. Gelb, University of Houston
ABSTRACT - Humor has been examined from various perspectives in consumer behavior research. As E.B. White (1941) has asserted, "humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process." Here, we continue this dissection tradition by examining two variables which may significantly influence perceived humor: social settings and wearout. A theoretical model is developed to predict when commercials will be perceived as humorous and when they will die (under the knife).
[ to cite ]:
George M. Zinkhan and Betsy D. Gelb (1990) ,"Repetition, Social Settings, Perceived Humor, and Wearout", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 438-441.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 438-441


George M. Zinkhan, University of Houston

Betsy D. Gelb, University of Houston


Humor has been examined from various perspectives in consumer behavior research. As E.B. White (1941) has asserted, "humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process." Here, we continue this dissection tradition by examining two variables which may significantly influence perceived humor: social settings and wearout. A theoretical model is developed to predict when commercials will be perceived as humorous and when they will die (under the knife).


The history of advertising and the history of humor have only recently intersected. In the early days of American journalism, ads were serious business, literally called "tombstone" ads by journalism historians because they were print notices which resembled the terse wording found memorializing the dead.

With the advent of broadcast media--radio and television--humor has blossomed, and it can be argued that the association is more than coincidental. Broadcast introduces into the advertising communication process three elements absent from print advertising. One is unsought repetition of a commercial message. The other is the possibility of communication to an audience greater than one, whose members are aware that others are sharing with them receipt of the advertiser's message. The third, of course, is the possibility of enhancing perceived humor through voice inflection, accent, and music.

The influence of the first two factors-unsought repetition and multi-person audiences--on response to humor in advertising is the focus of the discussion to be presented here. We will first outline the argument that humorous ads may flourish because of these two factors. Then we will review literature suggesting that repetition of a humorous ad leads to a particular type of "wearout," where a commercial message may lose its perceived humor. However, we will also suggest that in social settings, wearout of humor can be mitigated by the presence of a multi-person audience which supplements the humor in the commercial with its own shared meanings.


Literature linking attitude toward an ad to its effectiveness provides one managerial rationale for humor in advertising (Gelb and Pickett 1983). Another rationale is the association of humor with attention getting (Sternthal and Craig 1973, Madden and Weinberger 1984). These arguments appear to support the value of humor in advertising in any medium, print or broadcast.

In fact, however, humor appears relatively more rarely in print ads than in broadcast commercials. When Sears sends out a direct mail piece for its McKids stores directing the reader to "fill out the name and address coupon if your label was eaten by a large creature with teeth," the piece stands out conspicuously from the vast majority of humorless direct advertising. Similarly, a reader may page through a daily paper or magazine in vain seeking a light touch in display or classified ads. It seems reasonable to ask, then, why humor has made greater headway in radio and television.

It will be argued here that humor is related to the purpose of advertising and humor is the advertiser's response to anticipated audience unhappiness with unsought repetition in commercials. However, humor may "wear out" even sooner than other commercials do--possibly because it commands more attention. On the other hand it appears that the capacity of broadcast commercial messages to achieve exposure to audiences of more than one person, consciously sharing the experience, mitigates some wearout of humorous messages. Each of these will be discussed in turn.


Our first proposition is that commercial messages in broadcast media are more likely to at least attempt to evoke humor than are print ads. Two explanations, which are not contradictory, may be offered.

First, Puto and Wells (1984) suggest that good advertising either transforms the experience of using a product (e.g., a musical cola commercial) or informs the consumer. Broadcast media appear particularly appropriate for "transforming," due to the availability of music and other sound. Humor is a more likely approach for transformational than for informational advertising, one may surmise. If so, the link between broadcast media and humor is indirect,but plausible.

Second, the advertiser's desire to prevent or delay "wearout" is another explanation. If a print ad would be boring upon rereading, it will presumably not be reread. A radio or TV spot, by contrast is less likely to be encountered only once. The advertiser, aware of the problem, uses humor to bribe the viewer or listener to tolerate the repetition.


Whether either or both of the previous explanations are indeed the factors linking humor to broadcast media, the reality is that humor may actually speed wearout (Gelb and Zinkhan 1985). The phenomenon of "wearout" refers to the fact that advertisements lose effectiveness after repeated exposures. There is evidence that this effect occurs for a variety of dependent measures, including: humor (Gelb and Zinkhan 1985), persuasion, recall, and sales (Blair 1988). It is generally assumed that advertising messages achieve their peak effect after three exposures . After that point, the persuasive or selling power of an ad declines with repeated exposures.

Investigating the potential wearout of humorous appeals, a McCollum/Spielman study ("Repeating ..." 1978) concluded that a humorous or off-beat commercial will lose its effectiveness sooner than a straight selling message. More recently, however, this result was unsupported in a study by Belch and Belch (1984). In their laboratory study, they embedded in a half-hour television program either humorous or serious Federal Express commercials shown one, three, or five times during the program. Unaided message recall scores showed no significant effect for humorous vs. serious message or for number of exposures. Intention to use Federal Express, designed as a measure of persuasion, likewise did not vary significantly based on humor, number of exposures, or the interaction between the two.

An earlier study by Ray and Sawyer (1971) did not consider humor specifically, but explored the repetition effect of "grabber" ads (those with intrusive and unique qualities). Such ads, which might or might not seek to evoke humor, were found to outperform "non-grabbers" on recall but to under-perform them on purchase intention. Blair (1988) similarly investigated the proposition that certain "world class" ads do not wear out over time. She found that such commercials do build in the sense that persuasive ads increase sales over time (related to advertising spending). However, in the process, these ads also wear out (Blair 1988).

Various models have been proposed for explaining and investigating advertising response. Here we discuss two models:

1) A cognitive model, in which some element (e.g., humor) elicits attention for the substance of a message. This subsequently produces belief, then conviction, then brand preference.

2) A classical conditioning model, in which some element (e.g., humor) makes the advertisement attractive, and that attractiveness is transferred to the brand.

These two models are adapted from theories developed in the speech literature which link humor to persuasion. In general, we feel that a promising method for comparing these two, competing models is to examine their predicted effects on various measures of advertising response (e.g., recall, persuasion). That is, these two models can be used to derive predictions about the expected effects which humor will have on alternative measures of advertising effectiveness. To the extent to which these predictions are confirmed, the relative power of the two models can be assessed.

If an individual is exposed several times to the same humorous commercial, which exposure will have the greatest influence on that individual's subsequent evaluation of the advertised product? In other words, which will be more influential: the level of perceived humor following the first exposure or the level of perceived humor after the final exposure?

The two proposed models have differing predictions concerning this question. Under situations where the cognitive model is appropriate, the better predictor of advertising response (e.g., recall, persuasion) would be the humor perceived following the first advertising exposure. In situations where the classical conditioning model applies, the better predictor would be the humor perceived in the final (pre-purchase) advertising exposure.

These different predictions result from the function of humor in the advertisement. Madden and Weinberger (1982) found a significant association between humor and Starch "noted" scores, suggesting that humor draws attention to an ad. Using the cognitive model, it then appears that a sequential process of first knowing and second believing the substance of the message is set in motion. Thus, if the humor fades on subsequent exposures, there should be no associated drop in conviction, which presumably has already been developed. Perceived humor and recall should be positively associated if this model applies.

By contrast, humor would have a different function in the "transfer of affect" model (Shimp 1982). Presumably its function would be to make the advertisement attractive, and by classical conditioning to make the brand attractive. If so, and if humor then fades with repeated exposures, it would be expected that the impact of the initial perception of humor would be superseded by later perception. Thus, a level of perceived humor in the advertising exposure closest to the purchase decision would be a better predictor of brand choice than would the initial level of perceived humor. Perceived humor and recall need not be positively associated for this model to apply, since brand choice is presumed to stem from advertising attractiveness, not from the substance of the message.

To explore whether the cognitive model does explain wearout, Craig, Sternthal and Leavitt (1976) forced attention to repeated messages, and by doing so postponed wearout, a result supporting the attention-belief-persuasion path. However, Calder and Sternthal (1980) found that wearout can occur in spite of advertising strategies designed to enhance attention. They expected message repetition to lead to counter-argumentation, a hypothesis which would appear to support the classical conditioning model, if some element which provides positive feelings about a message (humor, perhaps) declines over time and permits a clearer-eyed consumer to begin evaluating the message. Specifically, the researchers measured the effect of successive exposures on the arousal value of commercials and also the evaluation of those commercials. Results showed, for one of two products, a lower evaluation with a higher number of exposures and a nonmonotonic effect on arousal, which increased up to three exposures and then decreased with six exposures. However, the study failed to find the expected increase in negative thoughts processed by audience members after several exposures. Thus, the findings were equivocal.

The above discussion of the literature suggests the overall proposition that perceived humor will decline with repetition. The cognitive and classical conditioning models provide alternative explanations for this effect. Since these models provide contrasting predictions about the relationship between humor and advertising effectiveness, carefully designed experiments should be able to identify the circumstances under which one model is superior or preferable to the other in terms of explaining this humor wearout effect.


The discussion so far has offered a contradictory picture. Humorous messages are placed on TV or radio because humor is deemed useful, but humor "wears out" with repetition. The final proposition to be presented here concerns the effect of social settings. Specifically, if more than one person is listening to or watching a commercial message, then this social dimension increases the likelihood that a message will be perceived as humorous, even after repetition.

Three studies suggest the merits of the case. Butcher and Whissell (1984) instructed experimental groups of two, four, or 10 subjects to view a humorous short film and taped their laughter. They found that, as group size increased, there were more laughs per person, longer laughs, and louder laughs. The trend in all cases was for greatest responding to occur in the 10-person audience and least responding in the 2-person audience (p. 950). An explanation for this relationship may be found in research by Alello et al. (1983) who found that "high spatial density" (more people per square foot) enhanced subjects' enjoyment of humor.

The third relevant study (Brown et al. 1982), building on the effect of "laugh tracks" in TV shows, showed print cartoons to individuals and measured laughter and smiling. A pre-coached "model" looked at the cartoons first, and then left the room; results showed that when the model had laughed, a subject laughed more than when the no-longer-present model had not laughed.

These studies support previous research which has found laughter to be contagious--or as the second study shows, even the recollection of laughter.

Here, then, may be a clue to the common-sense observation that not all humorous commercials (or comedy acts) "wear out" with repetition; some seem to get better, as anticipation of what will be presented evokes an anticipatory humorous response. If, in fact, a listener or viewer laughs because others do or have, the fact that broadcast commercials may have audiences of a size greater than one allows for the possibility that wearout of humor may at least be postponed. In a similar way, certain television commercials appear to become "funnier" over time as their punch lines enter the language of popular culture and are repeated by professional comedians, as well as the general public. One example of this sort of "world altering" commercial is Wendy's "where's the beef?" campaign, which even became an integral part of the 1980 Presidential election.


This paper has offered three propositions:

1. Humorous commercials re disproportionately placed in broadcast media.

2. The unavoidable multiple exposures of radio and TV audience members to humorous broadcast messages diminishes perceived humor as exposures increase. The classical conditioning and cognitive response models provide competing explanations for this- effect.

3. The contagious quality of laughter suggests that wearout can be greatly delayed under some circumstances, if commercial messages are seen/heard by someone in a social setting.

Taken together, these propositions suggest specific research directions.

First, it would be useful to examine the effect of group vs. individual responses to humor in radio commercials. The appeal of Jack Benny's "Well..." indicates the likelihood that a family gathered around the radio circa 1945 did indeed enjoy a group response no humor. For the 1990s, an appropriate project might be to test the perceived humor in drive-time radio messages heard by carpoolers vs. solo drivers, for example.

Second, it would be valuable to analyze elements of broadcast/telecast messages to determine which ones evoke group responses, with the idea of employing these elements in prime-time dayparts where group listening or viewing is most likely. Is "visual humor," for instance, more evocative of group response than is clever dialogue?

Third, we need to examine the fundamental issue of whether laughter and reports of perceived humor measure the same response, and/or to what extent they do so. The study where a laughing or non-laughing model left the room before the research subjects were exposed to a humorous stimulus obviously tried to reduce the likelihood of laughing because others were doing so, rather than laughing because the stimulus was perceived as funny. But one study can never be definitive.

Finally, we need to probe further the effects of "successful" humorous messages. Which are most likely to achieve which advertising objectives?

Only if humor "works" with considerable reliability is it useful to know the extent to which it wanes with repetition and/or waxes as the group sitting in front of the TV set enlarges. Basic questions in this whole area continue to challenge consumer behavior researchers, no matter how carefully or reliably we hone our dissecting knife.


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