Humor Mechanisms, Perceived Humor and Their Relationships to Various Executional Types in Advertising

Hyongoh Cho, University of Texas at Austin
ABSTRACT - This study investigates mechanisms underlying the formation of perceived humor in print ads and the relative effectiveness of various executional types in producing humor. Contemporary theories of humor are incorporated into an analysis of three humor mechanisms: cognitive, affective, and disparagement mechanisms. The cognitive mechanism is found to be the major determinant of perceived humor, whereas the other mechanisms have either minimal or negative impact on perceived humor.
[ to cite ]:
Hyongoh Cho (1995) ,"Humor Mechanisms, Perceived Humor and Their Relationships to Various Executional Types in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 191-197.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 191-197


Hyongoh Cho, University of Texas at Austin


This study investigates mechanisms underlying the formation of perceived humor in print ads and the relative effectiveness of various executional types in producing humor. Contemporary theories of humor are incorporated into an analysis of three humor mechanisms: cognitive, affective, and disparagement mechanisms. The cognitive mechanism is found to be the major determinant of perceived humor, whereas the other mechanisms have either minimal or negative impact on perceived humor.

A further analysis indicates that types of execution intended to produce humor may be grouped into six major categories, each of which tends to be a function of more than one humor mechanism. "Subtle complexity" is the most effective humorous device, followed by "slice-of-life." The most effective executional types are not necessarily those which are widely utilized by advertising practitioners.

Recent surveys estimate that 24 percent of TV commercials and 31 percent of radio commercials employ some form of humor (Weinberger and Campbell 1990). As a pleasant appeal widely used to enhance communication effect, humor is said to improve attitude toward the ad, attention and recall of simple messages, while its effect on persuasion tends to be complicated due to many moderating factors (Weinberger and Gulas 1992). While extensive research has investigated the effect of humorous executions on the communication outcomes, relatively little attention has been given to the analysis of the possible humor mechanisms and their relationship with various executional types utilized to elicit humor (Alden and Hoyer 1993; Speck 1991). An investigation into these issues may be particularly helpful to advertising practitioners who may then rely on theoretical guidelines rather than intuition or inspiration to design a humorous appeal. Toward this end, this study addresses three major issues: (1) the possible mechanisms underlying the formation of perceived humor in an advertising context; (2) the relationship between humor mechanisms and various executional types; and (3) the relative effectiveness of each executional type in generating humor. Here, mechanisms of perceived humor refer to the determinants of humor processing. Executional types simply describe various groups of executional elements purported to elicit humor. While a person may recognize the humorous intention behind various executional features in an ad (e.g., slapstick, ludicrousness, or play on words), mere recognition of such stimuli does not necessarily make one laugh. Perceived humor indicates one's humorous experience or appreciation of humor based on the evaluations of the executional features.


A review of contemporary humor theories indicates that these theories may be broadly categorized into three groups: cognitive, affective, and social/interpersonal approaches (Keith-Spiegel 1972; McGhee 1974; Speck 1991; Wicker et al. 1981; Wyer and Collins 1992). First, the cognitive approach emphasizes cognitive capacities and incongruity of events as main elements of perceived humor. Theories in this approach include incongruity (Nerhardt 1976), surprise (Descarte 1649, cited in Keith-Spiegel 1972), cognitive mastery (McGhee 1974), and incongruity-resolution theories (Suls 1972). While variants of incongruity theories (i.e., incongruity theory and surprise theory) emphasize the elements of unexpectedness, lack of consistency, and cognitive dissonance as a sufficient condition to produce humor, more complex cognitive theories (i.e., cognitive mastery theory and incongruity-resolution theory) suggest that individuals who recognize the perceptual incongruity of the incoming stimuli need to assimilate the discrepant events and resolve the incongruous parts in order to perceive them as humorous. According to the cognitive approach, the successful design of a humorous appeal needs to be based on an understanding of (1) the mental schema of the target audience; (2) consumers' problem-solving modes; and (3) fantasy-reality distinction. A humorous stimulus too discrepant with consumers' mental representations of reality may be difficult to be resolved, whereas a stimulus with little incongruity may not motivate consumers to engage in resolution of the incongruous parts. People may also engage in a form of problem solving using cognitive rules to reconcile incongruent stimulus with their mental schema (Suls 1972). Finally, expectancy violations may be perceived as being funny only when individuals have the capacity to distinguish between reality and fantasy (McGhee 1974). In this regard, a "play" cue (i.e., a cue signifying that the situation is not real and is to be taken playfully) may help the fluent transition from the problem-solving mode to perceptions of humorousness. Without a play cue, incongruity would lead to curiosity or puzzlement, and surprise may easily transform itself into fear or anxiety.

Second, the affective approach focuses on physiological arousal and thematic content (e.g., sex, aggression, and freedom) as the determinant of perceived humor. Theories in this approach include tension-release (Eastman 1936), arousal (Berlyne 1969), psychodynamic (Freud 1905/1960), and freedom theories (Mindess 1971). Tension-release and arousal theories mainly examine the physiological characteristics of humor by suggesting that the drive to regain homeostasis or an optimal arousal level is the driving force of humor. On the other hand, the psychodynamic theory suggests that humor enables people to disguise sexual drives or aggressiveness and thus escape briefly from strict regulation of affective expressions by social norms. Similarly, freedom theory indicates that humor occurs as a form of emotional release triggered by the sense of freedom through which we depart from the uniformity of social standards (Mindess 1971). In conjunction, advertisers may need to associate humor with subtle sexual themes and/or a sense of freedom in order to facilitate emotional release through a suitable form of humor. Also, a careful examination of the arousal level associated with perceived humor may allow practitioners to properly use either arousal-raising components (e.g., surprise, puzzlement), or arousal-relieving components (e.g., play cue, pleasant mood). When the program context or ad sequence creates a high arousal level such as excitement, fear and anger, a humorous message with arousal-relieving elements may be particularly effective because it reduces the tension level which is already high enough to produce an aversive reaction otherwise. On the other hand, a program context with a less emotional topic may need to be followed by a humorous ad with arousal-raising components to build up an optimal range of tension level.

Finally, the social/interpersonal approach attempts to explain humor in terms of social and interpersonal contexts within which humor is situated. Theories in this tradition include superiority (LaFave 1972), disparagement (Cantor and Zillmann 1973), and disposition theories (Zillmann et al. 1974). Central to superiority theory is a biased comparison of oneself with others so as to gratify ego-defensive needs. Similarly, disparagement theory contends that humor is a socially justified form of hostility and aggressiveness projected onto other individuals or groups without feelings of guilt. On the other hand, disposition theory takes a contingency approach by introducing the elements of group intimacy and its shared values as underlying dimensions of perceived humor. This theory suggests that perceived humor is an outcome of the interaction between the amount of disparagement and the strength of one's identification with the disparaged character. In the advertising context, the social/interpersonal approach would suggest that advertisers pay particular attention to values shared among the target audience and sublimated themes in their culture.


While there are numerous ways to describe executional features in an ad, this study limits the scope of executional types only to those widely utilized to produce humor. Humorous executional types have been classified by various criteria such as subject matter, form, motive type, and audience characteristics (Cattell and Luborsky 1947; Eysenck 1942; Fowler 1926). With many typologies proposed in previous humor studies, there have been recurrent themes. These themes include light-hearted mood, fantasy, word play, visual absurdity, nonsensical jokes, sarcasm, retaliative joke, and ludicrousness. While much theoretical work has been done on humor mechanisms, and many studies have examined various executional types pertaining to humor, few studies have attempted to explain how different humor mechanisms relate to uses of various executional types. It is unlikely that such a wide scope of executional features is explained by a single humor mechanism. For example, word play, visual absurdity and nonsensical jokes may activate cognitive processing by presenting logical paradoxes and perceptual incongruity. Sarcasm, ludicrousness, and retaliative jokes may facilitate negative social/interpersonal humor processing by eliciting feelings of superiority and disparagement. On the other hand, light-heartedness, fantasy, and sexual themes may constitute the primary components in the affective theories. By examining the relationship between various executional types and humor processing mechanisms, a more comprehensive understanding of how consumers process various executional types prior to humor appreciation may be acquired. This study reports an experiment conducted to assess the relationship among humor mechanisms, perceived humor and various executional types.


One hundred and eleven student subjects were recruited from undergraduate courses at a large Southwestern university and given course credit for participation. Subjects were shown 27 full-size print advertisements that had been chosen to appear in "The One Show. Advertising's Best Print, Radio, TV"-an annual selection of the most creative ads in the United States- between 1981 and 1990. To select the stimuli for this experiment, three expert judges were asked separately to choose print ads in which the messages or visuals clearly showed the advertiser's humorous intention. By focusing on the presence of the humorous intention in an ad rather than on one's own perceived humor, a potential individual bias in the selection process was expected to be minimized (Madden and Weinberger 1982). From the print ads which were classified as having obvious humorous intention by all three judges, 27 ads covering various consumer and service goods were chosen for use in the study. The 27 print ads were transformed into slides and whenever necessary, an enlarged version of the body copy was also shown on the screen. Each subject viewed a different set of three print ads in a small group of 11 to 15 subjects. After viewing each slide, subjects were asked to respond to questions measuring humor mechanisms, executional types, and perceived humor for each of the test ads. The subjects were then debriefed, and dismissed.


Mechanisms of Perceived Humor: An attempt was made to identify various theories underlying perceived humor. Because the tenets of each humor theory may not be easily reduced into single-sentence statements, a certain extent of conceptual transformation was inevitable in the scale development. The resulting 12 scales were intended to measure each of the cognitive, affective, and social/interpersonal theories. Five scales were directly borrowed from the study by Wicker et al. (1981). To conserve space, the scales are reported in Table 1. Subjects were asked to evaluate how closely each scale reflected their feelings on a 7-point scale anchored by "not at all" and "extremely."

Executional Types: Thirty-two scales were derived from studies that identified various techniques purported to produce humor (Andrews 1943; Cattell and Luborsky 1947; Eysenck 1942; Fowler 1926; Hassett and Houlihan 1979; Herzog and Larwin 1988; Kelly and Solomon 1975; Speck 1991). The scales reflect popular themes, situational components, personality factors, portrayals of action, complexity of verbal and visual elements, and social values (see Table 3). Subjects were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with each scale describing the ad on a 7-point scale anchored by "strongly disagree" and "strongly agree."

Perceived Humor: Perceived humor was measured by three 7-point semantic differential scales consisting of funny/not funny, humorous/not humorous, and amusing/not amusing (coefficient alpha=.96).


Mechanisms of Perceived Humor

An exploratory factor analysis of the humor mechanisms revealed three principal components with an eigenvalue greater than 1.0, accounting for 55 percent of the variance in the mechanism scores. Loadings on the resulting dimensions using varimax-rotation appear in Table 1.

The dimensional structure of the humor mechanisms is fairly consistent with the three humor approaches previously discussed. The first dimension consists of novelty of ideas, surprise triggered by unexpectedness, resolution of incongruity, and sudden insight into the whole configuration. This dimension reflects a wide scope of incongruity and resolution theories and is referred to as the cognitive mechanism. The second dimension consists of tension-release, physiological arousal, fantasy, feelings of freedom, and sympathy. It is referred to as the affective mechanism because of the physiological and emotional elements commonly shared in this dimension. The scale of "sympathy" was initially conceived as a positive social/interpersonal context (i.e., disposition theory), but it loaded mainly on the affective dimension. This leaves the negative social/interpersonal scales as a separate, distinct dimension. The dimension of negative contexts is referred to as the disparagement mechanism. This dimension is characterized by hostility toward the disparaged characters or objects, superiority, and conflicting feelings. Interestingly, conflicting feelings or ambivalence were also rated as an indicant of the disparagement dimension. Conflicting feelings may be caused by the simultaneous experience of feeling superior and guilty against the disparaged in the ad. The coefficient alphas are .73 for the cognitive mechanism, .74 for the affective mechanism, and .61 for the disparagement mechanism.



The Relationship Between Humor Mechanisms and Perceived Humor

An initial regression analysis was conducted to examine the relationship between the three humor mechanisms and perceived humor. A total of 43 percent of the variance in perceived humor was explained by the three mechanisms (see Table 2). The additional impact of each mechanism on perceived humor was further examined by comparing a "full model" (containing all three mechanisms as determinants of perceived humor) with a "reduced model" (containing only two mechanisms as determinants of perceived humor). Each of the three mechanisms explained significant incremental variance of perceived humor beyond the other two mechanisms, with the cognitive mechanism accounting for the largest improvement in the variance of perceived humor (_R2 =.15, p< .05), followed by the disparagement (_R2 =.07, p< .05) and affective mechanisms (_R2 =.04, p< .05). As a further step, a LISREL analysis (J÷reskog and S÷rbom 1986) with maximum likelihood method was conducted. The structural model was based on the variance/covariance matrices with the measurement model. The model provides an acceptable "fit" to the data in terms of chi square value (X2=70.4, p=.86) and goodness-of-fit index (GFI=.93). The resulting structural coefficients are consistent with the preceding regression analyses. Both the cognitive and disparagement mechanisms have substantial impact on perceived humor, whereas the effect of the affective mechanism is only marginal. Contrary to variants of disparagement theory, the effect of the disparagement dimension on perceived humor is strongly negative.

Characteristics of Executional Types

A principal components analysis was conducted to assess the structure of executional types in the print ads. The analysis produced nine distinct dimensions with eigenvalues greater than 1.0, far too many to use in the present analysis. A further analysis of the scree test indicated an "elbow" at the sixth dimension with diminishing returns. Accordingly, six principal components were retained, accounting for 52 percent of the variance in the scores of executional types. Loadings on the resulting varimax-rotated dimensions appear in Table 3. Twenty-four of 32 scales, or 75 percent of the scales, have primary loadings of greater than 0.45 on one of the six dimensions. Based on exploratory analysis of the individual items, these components are referred to as negativity (alpha=.77), slice-of-life (alpha=.76), ludicrousness (alpha=.72), subtle complexity (alpha=.71), perceptual interest (alpha=.71), and miniaturization (alpha=.52).

The scales for "negativity" consist of cynicism about morals, pessimistic attitudes, exchanges of retaliative jokes, and sarcasm. Exaggeration and underestimation are also perceived to represent negative sentiments, probably because distortion of reality often underlies depreciation or disparagement of the external reality and social norms. "Slice-of-life" involves ordinary people struggling with everyday predicaments, management of uncomfortable situations, and middle-class values. "Ludicrousness" indicates either adults behaving in an undignified, immature fashion, or people doing silly things. "Miniaturization" portrays children or animals struggling to get through seemingly complicated situations; it appeals to individual desire to regress into a childlike state or to empathize with those who are relatively powerless. "Subtle complexity" is characterized by various levels of complexity, metaphor, indirect situation, and tricky allusions in the message delivery. This type of execution tends to be subtle, inoffensive and sophisticated. "Perceptual interest" consists of contrast between verbal and visual elements, visual puns, and perceptual displacement.



The Relationship Between Humor Mechanisms and Executional Types

Several multiple regression analyses were conducted to examine the mechanisms underlying each type of execution. The results show that a majority of the executional types are determined by a combination of the cognitive, disparagement and affective mechanisms (see Table 4). "Negativity" is primarily determined by the disparagement mechanism combined with the cognitive and affective mechanisms. Elements of ridicule and attack may characterize disparagement processing, whereas incongruity-resolution processing is stimulated by repetition, exaggeration, and irony (Speck 1991). "Ludicrousness" is exclusively determined by the disparagement mechanism. "Slice-of-life" is determined mainly by the affective mechanism augmented by the disparagement mechanism. Comically dramatized ordinary life may permit the audience an alternative point of view on daily episodes and bring them a momentary experience of freedom and emotional release. Similarly, "miniaturization" is affected by both affective and disparagement mechanisms. The audience may be tempted to mock at the ineptitude and gullibility of children and animals, and at the same time experience imaginary stimulation and sympathetic responses toward them. "Subtle complexity" is determined mainly by the cognitive mechanism augmented by the affective mechanism. It appears that intellectual stimulation and cognitive elaboration are often required in processing relatively complex form of humorous stimulus. "Perceptual interest" was initially expected to be affected by the cognitive mechanism. To our perplexity, it is strongly related to the disparagement and affective mechanisms. Confronting deformity of their perceptual worlds, audiences may defend their views of reality by projecting hostility or contempt toward the object instead of engaging in cognitive elaboration to reduce the perceptual incongruity. Nevertheless, the variance of perceptual interest explained by these mechanisms is only marginal, indicating that this type of appeal may not be well explained by the traditionally known humor mechanisms.

The Relationship Between Executional Types and Perceived Humor

As a further step, a partial correlation analysis was conducted to examine the relationship between executional types and perceived humor. The results show that subtle complexity is most strongly related to perceived humor, followed by slice-of-life and perceptual interest (see Table 5). Negativity was initially found to have no significant relationship with perceived humor. After partialling out the impact of slice-of-life and subtle complexity on both negativity and perceived humor, negativity was significantly related to perceived humor. Ludicrousness and miniaturization are not significantly related to perceived humor. A close analysis indicates that certain executional types have complex interrelationships. For example, the relationship between negativity and perceived humor appears to be mediated by slice-of-life and subtle complexity. Similarly, subtle complexity tends to mediate the relationship between slice-of-life and perceived humor, but not vice versa, indicating that the effects of the affective mechanism on perceived humor may be mediated by the cognitive mechanism.


The investigation of the relationship between humor mechanisms and perceived humor indicates that perceived humor is mainly determined by the cognitive mechanism, while the effects of other mechanisms are either negative or minimal. Similarly, Alden et al. (1993) found that a majority of humorous advertising in various cultures contained incongruent cognitive structures, indicating that ads with incongruity-resolution principles may have the ability to generate humor in diverse cultures. Despite its marginal effect, the affective mechanism may underlie a major dimension of perceived humor through the mediation of the cognitive processing mechanism. Wicker et al. (1981) found that affective variables (e.g., anxiety, sympathy, emotional involvement) were a significant indicant of funniness to the extent that they induced incongruent responses to the messages. Contrary to the expectations of the disparagement theory, consumers' negative associations with the characters or objects in social/cultural context tend to be detrimental to the generation of humor. Consumers may recognize the humorous intention of the advertisers, but the negative feelings or thoughts produced by the disparagement techniques may derail advertisers' humor intention and lead to indiscriminate antipathy toward both the endorser and the disparaged. Research indicates that extreme forms of disparagement hamper the resolution of the incongruity and produce an unexpected negative reaction from individuals because they may consider such brutal assaults as going beyond justifiable and legitimate levels (Wicker et al. 1980; Zillmann et al. 1974).







Consistent with the humor mechanisms, subjects are found to be most responsive to the executional components driven by the cognitive mechanism (i.e., subtle complexity), followed by those determined by the affective mechanism (i.e., slice-of-life). On the other hand, executional types driven by the disparagement mechanism (i.e., negativity, ludicrousness) show either an aversive or nonsignificant relationship with perceived humor. Considering that ludicrous humor is most frequently employed in the U.S and U.K, followed by satirical humor (Weinberger and Spotts 1989), the most effective executional types may not necessarily coincide with those widely utilized by advertising practitioners. These findings collectively suggest that advertising practitioners utilize the cognitive characteristics of a humorous scheme such as subtle complexity, metaphor and tricky allusions in the development of a humorous ad. The employment of a disparagement technique such as ludicrousness, satire, and retaliative jokes may be somewhat risky because of its tendency to induce negative reactions to the characters in the ad without much discrimination. These findings, however, should be taken with caution. A humorous ad often activates multiple processing mechanisms, complicating the understanding of the true force underlying consumers' ad processing. For example, a mild form of negativity may facilitate both disparagement and cognitive processing because consumers often perceive the public expression of the negative themes as incongruent from the regularities of social relationships. This form of humor may be effective as far as the positive reactions induced by the cognitive processing is strong enough to offset the negative effects of the disparagement processing.

Several limitations of the study undermine the generality of the findings. First, only print ads were included in the test, leaving other media unexamined. The configuration of executional types may vary across different media because media and audience factors may enable certain executional types to be more accessible and easier to execute. Second, only college students were recruited for the experiment. This sampling bias may have contributed to the salience of the cognitive mechanism as the explanation of humor appreciation because individuals show a wide range of intellectual capacity which is central to the pursuit of cognitive humor processing. Third, the formal group environment with the instructor present may have sensitized subjects to the aspects of social desirability, biasing the subjects' evaluations against a socially discouraged form of humor. In an intimate group environment, subjects may feel securer and even encouraged to express a socially unacceptable form of humorous reactions. These factors merit further consideration when investigating the causal structure of perceived humor and the relative effectiveness of different executional types on attitudinal and behavioral consequences.


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