Make ’em Laugh…No, Don’t

Posted by: Lara Berman
  • August 5, 2013
  • 6

Bath time can be funnyWhether you’re a wheezer, a snorter, a cackler, a hisser, a screamer or a silent shaker, we all love to laugh. We find funny people highly likeable and magnetic. Then, by natural extension, ads that tickle our funny bones should enhance our favoritism toward a brand and lead to purchase…right? Ahhhh, the age-old question: do funny ads work?

Humor is layered and complex. But from a marketing standpoint, companies opt for funny ads because they want to provoke happy feelings and reap positive brand associations. LRW Research Director and Pragmatic Brain Science Institute scientist Collette Eccleston, PhD says, “Funny ads work as a first step toward buyer engagement. They grab audience’s attention and are memorable when done well; however, it’s negative feelings not positive ones that typically mobilize consumers to act.”

If we define successful ads as those that result in purchase behavior, then the most successful ads are those that highlight a problem or need, generate an emotional response, and then solve the issue with their product or service. Advertisers must walk a fine line to, as Eccleston said, elicit a negative emotion—just enough for the customer to identify with—and then quickly provide relief from that pain, such that the consumer associates the product with the solution, not the problem. We didn’t say it’d be easy. It’s creative alchemy.

Muddy messaging and weak calls to action foul up funny ads. If an ad merely aims to call attention to the brand and endear itself to consumers, then a humorous spot could achieve that objective. But if a brand hopes to trigger purchase, comedic ads could fail them unless part of a larger campaign.

The purchase prescription: a drop of negative emotion followed by relief. Is your ad hitting the mark? Answer these questions to find out:

  1. Define the ad’s goal. Do you wish to brand build? Or activate an immediate response?
  2. Conduct preliminary ad tests, measuring immediate, non-conscious reactions, including affect and then conscious, emotional reactions over time.
  3. Actionability: given this newly acquired data, recall your goal. Does this ad meet the purchase prescription that will accomplish your objective?

Humor is in. And while we all like funny, we want results too. Keep these guideposts in mind and you’ll gain the emotional advantage. Then, who’ll be laughing?

  • Frank Chipman
    August 13, 2013
    Excellent piece Collette. As you point out, ads with sharper or negative emotional content get attention, because they disrupt. This can work for or against a brand. First the viewer must admit the problem. Many cholesterol ads failed, because they connected the problem to heart attackes, in an attempt to scare viewers into action. Big problem, because viewers didn't want to think about death. Viewers tuned out. One of the most successful cholesterol ads was for Vytorin, a somewhat silly and humorous ad(see It suggested the problem, but also let the patient off the hook. "It's not your fault, blame your gramma!" The best formula for a great ad is get to attention and deliver a message that is well linked to the brand. The voila, sales!
  • Jody
    August 8, 2013
    Interesting indeed. To build on these thoughts, I also think its highly dependent on the type of product you're selling - I assume humor works better in beer or fashion ads (you buy these products to feel good), but negativity will drive consumers to action in a category like insurance. While we're more likely to remember things that are driven by fear, it really matters what fits your brand or category. What kind of emotion do you want your product/brand associated with?
  • Daniel
    August 7, 2013
    Great read. Evoking a negative emotional response from the viewer signifies that some core value the user believes in was challenged. They would therefore be more inclined to take action in response. In contrast, humor can result for a variety of reasons. Many of which do not challenge “deep” values of individuals. A well crafted ad would frame the consequences of utilizing their service or product as the(or resulting in a) functional or psycho-social benefit which satisfies the user’s core values. This is not to say that a humorous ad that accomplishes to demonstrate the consequences and values is not feasible, but it’s far more likely to “pull at the hearts strings” when producing content with goals of eliciting negative emotion.
  • Brandon Ramirez
    August 6, 2013
    People are more inclined to make a gut purchase after having a sad or stressful incident. It's the same relief you get when you punch a pillow or throw away your exes clothes. Give them a lasting impression of sadness, and a product to associate with it, they'll be crying back for more.
  • Jonathan Weiss
    August 6, 2013
    One thing I've noticed about using humor is how important it is to have a good sense of what your target audience finds funny. There are many different styles of humor, which can be impacted by your age, gender, attitudes, behaviors, etc. It's much harder to hit the mark amongst a broad audience with humor than with other tones, such as sentimentality.
  • Jane
    August 5, 2013
    Funny ads work when (1)we connect with the underlying message (2) we remember the product for which the ad was for a day/week later (3) the product solves a problem or fills a need. Otherwise, just another moment in life.

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