BOOK EXCERPT: Make 'em laugh, make 'em buy

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In the new revised international edition of "Advertising & the Mind of the Consumer," authors Max Sutherland and Alice K. Sylvester explain how much, if not most, advertising is not designed to make consumers want to run out and buy the product. In the following edited excerpt, the authors focus on the problems of humor.

To have a sense of humor is a good thing. Everyone agrees, right? To not have a sense of humor is a bad thing. Well, prepare yourself for a shock. This idea is only about 400 years old. You don't have to go too far back in history before finding that laughter and humor were viewed negatively, not positively. Indeed, they reflected the "satanic spirit of man."

Greek philosophy depicted humor as a cruel and brutal affair. Plato thought it was based on an unfortunate lack of self-knowledge and motivated by envy, which made it morally inferior and reprehensible. Aristotle described laughter as "degrading to morals, art and religion, a form of behavior from which civilized man should shrink." And Lord Chesterfield wrote that "there is nothing so illiberal and so ill-bred than audible laughter."

The historical origins of humor lie in the darker side of man -- in derisive rather than friendly, enjoyable laughter. If you don't believe that, consider the expression "pulling your leg." It means having fun at your expense. But what's its origin?

Until the last century, public executions by hanging were a great source of entertainment. Often the victim's neck would not break, and he was left to writhe and strangle slowly. His friends were allowed to pull down on his legs in order to put him out of his misery. This was an added source of amusement for the onlookers.

So much for the modern view that a sense of humor is something intrinsically good and has always been that way. Only 400 years ago laughter was "seen as a socially disruptive force." Not exactly the stuff that ads are made of.

What has this got to do with commercials? Not much today perhaps -- except that it should serve as a warning that humor is not as simple as it often seems. The more you study humor and the more you track the effects of humorous ads, the more it emerges as a Jeckyl and Hyde phenomenon that can have both negative and positive effects.

Anatomy of humorous ads

What makes ads humorous? Let us explore this with an actual ad. Readers may recall a classic ad that showed a lovebird pecking at what seemed like food but was really the keys of a Touch-Tone telephone. The beeps indicated it was accidentally dialing someone. Of course, this had to be accidental. Everyone knows birds don't dial. And even if they did, who would they call? Ah, but in the next scene we see a courier arrive. He picks up the sleeping cat with delivery note attached and departs to the off-screen sound of the bird twittering -- or maybe chuckling. We suddenly realize it wasn't just random food-pecking behavior -- the bird phoned the courier company to dispose of its nemesis, the cat.

So what makes a commercial like this one humorous? What's in it that make us laugh? The key is in the incongruity. The bizarre picture of the bird pecking is mixed up with what we identify as a peculiarly human trait -- that is, intelligent, manipulative behavior. Seemingly random pecking by a bird at telephone keys turns out to be cunning, deliberate behavior that you just don't expect from a bird.

So writers create humor by surprising us -- but in a particular way. They force us momentarily to fuse together two things that already exist in our minds but are otherwise unrelated and incompatible (in this case, food pecking and dialing). Incongruity is something of a general formula.

Our minds lead us up this garden path -- a bird pecking at a phone is naturally interpreted in terms of buttons being mistaken for food. But only momentarily, before we are then forced to accept the alternative interpretation of the scene that the bird was dialing and not just pecking. This happens when we see the courier pick up the cat. This interpretation makes the two things consistent, and while it is experienced as bizarre, it is also enjoyable. And therein lies the key to humorous ads.

The interesting thing is that jokes as well as humorous ads are often built intuitively by writers. They notice the ambiguity in something (e.g., a visual scene, a word or phrase or a concept) and then create an incongruity. Instead of adopting the most obvious interpretation that everyone will take, they develop instead an alternative one. An interpretation that "fits" but which is highly unlikely or bizarre in the context (i.e., the bird is dialing someone).

The conceptual elements that go into humorous ads such as this and induce a mental switch from information to humor and hence enjoyment of the ad, are these:

* Two concepts (e.g., dumb bird and human intelligence);

* Incongruity/incompatibility between them (i.e., one violates the other);

* Confidence that the stimulus elements occurring as depicted are impossible or highly unlikely;

* A way of fusing the two and making them momentarily "compatible."

The evidence suggests that the greater the degree of incongruity, the funnier the humor is seen to be. The more impossible or incompatible the two things are that are fused together, the more enjoyment people seem to derive from it.

Humorists and scientists

Fusing incongruent ideas like this is part of the much broader process of creativity. Humor has a lot in common with scientific creativity, for example. Arthur Koestler pointed out that humor is "the bringing about of a momentary fusion between two habitually incompatible frames of reference." The creativity involved in writing humorous commercials is not unlike the creativity of scientific discovery. One strives for the "ha ha" reaction, while the other strives for the "ah ha" reaction. The difference is that scientific discovery is the permanent fusion of the ideas previously believed to be incompatible. Humor is only a temporary fusion.

Comedy writer Herbie Baker, who wrote for comedian Danny Kaye, had an intriguing way of looking at incongruity. He believed that ideas struggle against each other to fight their way up to our conscious mind from the unconscious. Under normal circumstances, certain ideas are incapable of combining with one another. Usually, their incongruity blocks these ideas from making it successfully into the conscious mind. Creative people like scientists can somehow circumvent this situation and bring incongruous ideas into their minds in spite of this otherwise natural blocking tendency. Marty Feldman, the great comedian, expressed this pithily when he said: "Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act."

Humorous ads

Ask the members of your family what advertisements make them laugh. The chances are they will spontaneously say, "Oh, lots of them!" -- and then fall silent. If you persist, they will eventually dredge out of memory a commercial that made them laugh. You will probably note how difficult it is for them immediately to bring to mind a specific example and, when they do, it is even more striking how much difficulty they have in remembering the brand name of the product advertised.

What emerges clearly, however, from this as well as from the tracking of numerous funny commercials of various types is the underlying Jeckyl and Hyde phenomenon. The ads are entertaining and a lot of fun, but when they come to mind, they do so often without the brand. The first step in being able to make humor work effectively is to recognize its two faces: It has the potential for positive effects, but it can have negative effects as well. We will see that much depends on precisely how the humor is executed.

There are three main mechanisms by which humor is supposed to work in advertising:

* Less counter-arguing. Because we process them as entertainment (rather than engage in true/false evaluation of the content), there is less counter-arguing with humorous ads.

* Humorous ads are noticed more -- that is, they draw greater attention.

* Humorous ads are generally liked more. Ads that are liked have a higher probability of being effective, all other things being equal.


The first mechanism is that humorous ads seem to invite less counter-arguing. When we read a fiction book, we mentally process it differently from non-fiction. With fiction we engage in escapist enjoyment rather than true/false evaluation of what we are reading. Humor is entertainment and tends to be mentally processed in a different way from informational commercials. We are less likely to process the ad in terms of true/false evaluation.

Freud observed that the world of humor is "a place to which we temporarily and symbolically return to the playful and happy mood of childhood." When we switch into our enjoyment/humor appreciation mode, we switch off our attempt to process the ad in a normal, informational or logical way.

The incongruous elements in the ad tip us off that this is meant to be humor and trigger a reset switch in our minds. We stop normal processing and sit back -- hopefully to enjoy the absurdity and a momentary return to the playful, happy mood of childhood. But Mr. Hyde is lurking -- a reduction in counter-arguing can often be at the expense of correct branding of the ad. The risk with humor is that we may be so focused on processing it as entertainment that little if any processing registers for the brand and the message.

Attention and recall

The second mechanism is attention-getting. In helping the ad to get attention and break through, we see perhaps the most positive side of humor. But Mr. Hyde is never far away, and whether that extra attention has a positive effect or a negative effect depends greatly upon where that attention gets focused.

People who are mugged at gun point often find it difficult to give the police much in the way of any description of the mugger. Why? Because if someone points a gun at us, it hijacks our attention. Understandably, we become so focused on the gun that we take little notice of anything else.

Humor may provide big guns for advertisers to help them get noticed among the clutter, but humor can hijack attention so totally that people don't take in the message or even the brand that is shown in the ad -- they are too preoccupied with the humor. Now we begin to see why it is not really surprising that a number of studies have researched humorous ads and found they were no more effective than straight ads or, worse, they even impacted negatively on results.

If you conduct your own family poll, chances are you will confirm that humorous ads have an unusually high risk of suffering a message and branding problem. Just as the use of high-profile presenters can distract us from processing the important elements of the brand and the message, so too can humor. If not used properly, it will hijack our attention from the brand and the message. That does not mean that we should stop using humorous ads. We don't stop using high-profile presenters because of this effect. But we do have to take deliberate actions to overcome it. We have to make sure that the brand-message communication in these commercials is so much stronger in order to compensate for the overshadowing effect of the humor.

Integrating brand, execution

How do we do this? Apart from making the brand very visible, the best answer is to try to heavily integrate the brand with the execution. How often do we see an ad that is an entertaining piece of film but with the brand message hardly integrated at all into the story? All too often the brand appears in the commercial almost as a "tag" at the end of the ad.

Ideally, the brand should be made an integral part of the execution of the ad, especially in the case of humorous ads because of the "attention-overshadowing" effect of the humor.

What do we mean by integration? To illustrate, consider the classic Budweiser frogs commercial in the U.S. Three frogs are croaking in turn, and at first it just sounds like nonsense croaking. But as the croaks speed up and run together, the camera pans so that a large Budweiser sign comes into view and it becomes clear that the sound the frogs are making is "Bud," "Weis," "Er." Here the brand is well integrated. It is not just a tag or pack shot, but woven into the story line.

A good test of how integrated the branding is in any ad is to play a little game of "imagine." Imagine the ad, but with your competitor's brand substituted in it instead of your own. Does the ad still make sense? Does the substitution violate the ad? If the competitor's brand fits the execution as well as yours, you are at risk. It is likely to brand poorly (unless you are the market leader or take other steps to strengthen the branding in the commercial). The creator of the famous Volkswagen Beetle campaign went so far as to say that if you take the brand out of the ad, it should no longer be funny.

Many ads have good integration of the product category with the execution but not with the brand. For example, recall the ad mentioned above, with the lovebird that successfully disposes of the cat by pecking at the telephone keys to dial a courier company that comes to pick up the cat as a package. This was a great ad that ran globally and that many people still remember. Which courier company was it for?

If you can't answer that question, then you are among many who could not recall the brand even when the ad was on air. In fact, the ad was for DHL courier. Note that you could easily substitute FedEx into the commercial in your mind and it would do no violation to the ad whatsoever. The brand is not integrated with the execution. However, the product category is. You couldn't as easily change the product category to something else. A courier company is fundamental to the story line and a key ingredient in making the humor work.

Ideally, the brand name itself should tie in, as in the Budweiser commercial. This is not an easy thing to do. In fact, some would argue that when it does happen, it is pure genius. By way of illustration, consider, for example, that the lovebird/courier ad would have worked much better with some kind of tie-in to the DHL company name. The ad would have worked wonderfully for Kruger Allstates Transport (we made that up) because it would have been much harder to confuse it with any other company (like FedEx), the cat being an essential part of the ad.

The KAT courier brand could be easily integrated as an executional element in the ad as Budweiser was in the frogs ad. Like the chorused croaks in the Budweiser ad, the cat would form an integral element in the commercial and act as a retrieval cue for the company brand. While it is much harder to do, if integration can be achieved it works far better than simply tacking the brand on at the end.


Liking of a brand's advertising is the third mechanism. Just as a brand's packaging is part of its brand attire, so too a brand's advertising reflects the characteristic way it communicates. Liking for the way it communicates can add to the liking for the brand. A brand's advertising is one dimension of its personality. Just as humorous public speakers are appreciated, so humorous ads are liked and this has the potential to wash over onto the brand itself.

As we saw earlier, liking of a brand's advertising is a feather that can tip the balance toward that brand. In low-involvement categories where all brands in the category are virtually identical and there is often nothing new to say about the brand, then the "beam balance" mechanism comes into play. If all brands are equal, it takes only one additional feather on one side of the beam-balance to tip the decision to that brand. Liking of the brand's advertising can be that feather. It is of somewhat less importance in high-involvement categories

Humor therefore tends to be more effective in low-involvement categories because it can be an effective feather. But there is another reason why it does not usually work as well in high-involvement categories. When people are already highly involved, humor can be somewhat superfluous in attracting their attention. If the advertiser has some important information to tell people about a product that they are highly involved in, then they are likely to be all ears. It won't necessarily get any more of their attention if you include humor, and it may distract them from the key message elements. So for both these reasons humor is less relevant to high-involvement categories than to low-involvement categories.


Conventional wisdom says that humorous ads wear out quickly and certainly wear out faster than other ads. But do they? It is nowhere near that clear-cut. Some studies find that they do wear out more quickly while other studies find no difference between humorous and normal ads.

In tracking we have seen situations where humorous TV ads worked very effectively for over a year without showing signs of wear-out. In one case, for example, the ad was on air for two years before showing any signs of wearing out. The advertiser and the ad agency would have pulled the ad off air 18 months earlier but for the clear evidence coming from the tracking data.

Why do such contradictory results exist? One clue is in the social dimension. Laughter and humor are contagious -- that's why they put laughter tracks in comedy shows. When we watch a funny ad, our reactions are likely to be different depending on whether we are viewing it alone or with others. Ads that are viewed by audiences that typically consist of just one person have less chance of being seen as funny. Studies are fairly consistent in showing that people laugh more if they are with other people, and the more people the more they laugh.

Two leading researchers suggest that this is why we get contradictory findings on wear-out of humor. As they put it:

". . . Some [ads] 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 . . . wear-out of humor may be postponed . . . certain television commercials seem 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."

This exposes the fact that humor not only helps an ad break through and get attention, but it may also succeed in making the ad itself a point of discussion and attention of the social group. Quiz shows like "Millionaire" and "Wheel of Fortune" owe a considerable amount of their success to this. Unlike most other TV programs, they stimulate participation and discussion between members of the living-room audience.

This is not just a case of gaining greater attention. It takes on a significance and a level of enjoyment that comes about by the ad emerging from the TV set to become the focus of a conversational interaction.


Humor remains one of the least understood elements in advertising -- indeed, one of the least understood sides of life. We have a lot to learn yet about how to maximize the chances of humorous commercials working effectively, but we are getting there. The available research is thin and doesn't provide anything like a clear view.

The glimpses of insight can be extremely valuable, however -- like peeking through venetian blinds. The view is not perfect, but as someone once said: "If it were not for venetian blinds, it would be curtains for all of us."

Reprinted with permission from "Advertising & the Mind of the Consumer: What Works, What Doesn't, & Why" by Max Sutherland and Alice K. Sylvester ( Publication: Oct. 1, 2000. Published by Allen & Unwin, distributed by Independent Publishers Group. Paperback, $19.95, ISBN 1-86508-231-7.

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