Sense of Humor and Advertising: a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Model


Carolyn Costley, Scott Koslow, and Graeme Galloway (2002) ,"Sense of Humor and Advertising: a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Model", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 225-226.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 225-226


Carolyn Costley, University of Waikato

Scott Koslow, University of Waikato

Graeme Galloway, La Trobe University

Advertising scholars do not fully understand the extent to which creative strategy effectiveness depends on the target audience. One view is that yes, how you say it can elicit different responses from different market segments or audience types. As with product and message, you can customize advertising execution and predict audience response. The alternative view is that no, execution styles cannot predictably elicit different responses from different audiences. Although you can divide an audience into segments, individual differences within groups make predicting impossible.

Humor is a popular component of creative strategies. It comes in a variety of types and creatives use it in a variety of ways. Although experts say that humorous advertisements should relate to the product (see Weinberger & Gulas 1992), it is also important that the humor appeals to the targeted audience; otherwise, it is just not funny. Research has not yet established how different audiences respond differently to different types of humor or whether individual characteristics, such as sense of humor, affect responses. As above, there are two possibilities: yes, responses to humorous ad executions depend on audience sense of humor characteristics or no, you cannot reliably predict responses. We examine reactions to 'humorous’ advertisements to find out whether responses depend on an individual’s sense of humor because we want to understand the predictability of humor execution effects. To measure sense of humor we use the Multidimentional Sense of Humor Scale (MSHS) (Thorson and Powell 1993a)

We used four commercials from the 1992 London International Advertising Awrds humor category. Their creating agencies represented four different countries (England, New Zealand, South Africa, and USA). One can construe the products to represent three types based on a risk-benefit grid (e.g., Spotts, Weinberger, & Parsons 1997). The advertisements were called "Spaniards," "Accident," "Ray and Maureen," and "Harvester."

Humor creation scores may correlate with funniness ratings for "Spaniards" and "Accident." We offer two reasons. Because humor creativity (HC) is a behavioral dimension, it may be associated with the behavioral humor mechanism (disparagement) in the advertisements. Humor creation is associated with the personality traits of dominance and exhibition (K÷hler & Ruch 1996) and disparagement is an aggressive mechanism connected to dominance and exhibition. Because humor creation tends to be more stable than the other dimensions of the MSHS, this is one to pay attention to.

The coping dimension allegedly captures a tendency to use humor as an adaptive mechanism in stressful situations. This should correspond to the arousal-safety mechanism in the commercials (to the extent that 'arousal’ arouses something akin to 'stress’). In particular, "Ray and Maureen" presents a stressful situation and incorporates humor to address it. Those who tend to use humor to ease stressful situations (CH) may find this funnier than others may, or they may perceive a better fit between the advertisement and the product. "Harvester" also presents a stressful situation and the same predictions.

Humor appreciation (HA) appears to measure the degree to which an individual likes humor from others. Thus, scores on this could correspond to ratings across the board, a general tendency to find someone else’s humor attempts amusing. However, analyses show it a weak factor barely distinguishable from humor creation (K÷hler & Ruch 1996). It may predict nothing on its own.

The attitude towards humor (AH) dimension should correspond to a subject’s ratings of an advertisement’s appropriateness (fit) for 'serious’ products. The most serious product is family planning. Thus AH may be associated with perceived fit of humor to family planning. The matrix classifies laxatives and motor oil as low risk functional products and thus they are next in seriousness. Cookies are low risk expressive. We would expect an association between AH and fit(cookies) of opposite direction to the association between AH and fit(family planning).

In testing the model we found that the dependent scales had a high degree of fit. However, when the MSHS was assessed, it performed poorly and its structure could not be confirmed. At this point the analysis switched from confirmatory to exploratory.

The general pattern of results is that the better one measures Sense of Humor the worse it predicts. Although the Humor Creativity scale was the most valid, it did not affect any dependent variable in the models. Neither did Attitude toward Humor affect any dependent variable. However, Humor Appreciation, a likely spurious measure, predicted Funniness well in three out of four models. Humor Appreciation also predicted Aad in three out of four models, but its relationship was negative.

Higher levels of Coping Humor-1 predicted higher levels of Funniness in the two hypothesized product categories, laxatives and family planning. However, in those same situations higher levels Coping Humor-2 led to lower Funniness. These perplexing and contradictory results suggest that the god of statistics has a good sense of humor.

If nothing else, our study warns future advertising researchers not to rely on the MSHS, which may lack validity. However, consideration of other empirical work in humor suggests that there is a second possibility: humor responses are unpredictable. Other domains see similarly unpredictable effects; a comparison may be useful.

Finance researchers have long investigaed the efficient market hypothesis, which says that one cannot predict future total average returns using past average returns. Instead, surprises in the form of higher or lower earnings, business cycles, etc. are the basis of short-term equity performance. Surprise is also an element of humor. Popular incongruity theories posit that humor responses arise from the juxtaposition of two schemas and the unexpected resolution (Wicker, Thorelli, Baron, & Ponder 1981). Both with and without resolution, scholars have shown that incongruity evokes surprise accompanied by amusement (Deckers 1993; Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000). It may be that measuring sense of humor is similar to measure past equity returns, it describes what happened in the past, but provides little insight in what will be funny or profitable in the future. Therefore, if advertisements target a consumer’s sense of humor, the consumer knows what’s coming and therefore, it’s not funny.


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Carolyn Costley, University of Waikato
Scott Koslow, University of Waikato
Graeme Galloway, La Trobe University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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