Home > Attention, Memory > The Value of a Laugh

The Value of a Laugh

Once a year, family and friends get together for a day full of camaraderie, nachos, wings, and beer, and some football. If you guessed that I am talking about the Super Bowl, you are correct. But, if you’re like me, it’s not the atmosphere or the football of this occasion that I look forward to most, it is the commercials. In fact, according to multiple sources, I am not the only one who feels this way about the Super Bowl. What studies have shown is that over half of the viewers watch the game for the commercials rather than the game itself.

The reason the Super Bowl has become the largest advertising event in the US is because it has the largest viewership base out of any US event with over 110 million viewers (Turner, 2013). To give you an idea of how large this viewership is, there were about 70 million viewers when election results were announced for both of President Obama’s victories (Stelter, 2012). Because of the reach of this one event, advertisers prepare all year to create new and innovative attention capturing ads in hopes to keep their brand at the forefront of every consumer’s mind. Of course, in order for advertisers to ensure that they are getting the most value out of their $4 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl ad space (Turner, 2013), they must not only understand their customers, but must know the factors that contribute to effective advertising.

One of the most extensively used techniques by advertisers to get their brands to stick in their consumer’s minds is to employ humor in their ads. It has been estimated that US advertisers spend over $45 billion a year on humorous ads. As reviewed by Strick et al. (2009), many advertisers feel that humor is effective in getting their message across because it increases both the attention paid to an ad and the motivation of perceivers to process an ad. However, Krishnan and Chakravarti (2003) found evidence that even though funny advertisements draw people’s attention, people have difficulty remembering the product or brand that was being advertised because attention was focused on the humor and not the product or brand. Although 30%-42% of all ads contain humor, most studies conducted on this subject show that using humor over non-humor in ads does not provide a significant advantage to advertisers.

More specifically, this previous research focused on self-reported explicit attitudes towards advertisements rather than implicit attitudes. In simpler terms, explicit attitudes are those that are deliberately and consciously formed, where a person is aware of the view he or she holds toward something. For example, a person is aware that they find an advertisement funny. On the other hand, implicit attitudes are formed unconsciously, and are unacknowledged or outside of a person’s awareness. Although explicit attitudes affect people’s behaviors when they intentionally evaluate ads, the majority of ad evaluation in the real world is implicit. In fact, the average consumer is exposed to thousands of ads per day, meaning that as a person becomes overloaded with information, most of this information is not intentionally evaluated or attended to, and therefore is unconsciously processed. As a result, these prior implicit judgments lead consumers to make unconsciously influenced buying decisions. An example of this is when someone walks into a store and grabs laundry detergent without comparing the different brands available.

Because a lot of evidence points to implicit attitudes affecting consumer choices, Strick et al. (2009) conducted an experiment that examined this topic. Strick et al. hypothesized that pairing humor with a product or brand would cause people to associate them with positivity and therefore drive future consumer choices. For instance, after a seeing a funny ad for a soft drink, a person goes to the store and chooses that soft drink because they unconsciously associate it with positivity. In addition, because previous evidence showed that humorous ads cause distraction, the experimenters tested if distraction due to humor interferes with implicit attitude formation. It was hypothesized that humor would distract people from remembering the product or brand being advertised. Despite this impaired memory, Strick et al. expected participants to choose the product or brand that was associated with humor because of implicitly formed positive attitudes.

To test their hypotheses, participants were presented with a digital magazine on a computer screen that included 41 images (21 fillers, 10 humorous cartoons, and 10 nonhumorous cartoons). Participants were tested on either two existing brands of energy drinks or two experimental products (scissor and ballpoint pen) where one of the brands or products was paired with 10 different humorous cartoons, and the other brand or product was paired with 10 different nonhumorous cartoons.

After going through the magazine, participants performed an evaluative priming task. Priming is when exposure to a stimulus influences behavior towards a later stimulus. In this task, participants were asked to indicate as quickly and accurately as possible whether a target word (e.g., pretty, wrong) was positive or negative. Before each target word appeared on the computer screen, one of the brand names was presented for 200 ms. For example, if a person was primed with the brand that was associated with humor, then responses on subsequent positive targets were expected to be faster. The results showed that participants responded faster to the positive targets when primed with the humor related brand than with the control or nonhumorous brand. This implies that people form positive implicit attitudes when they see humorous ads.

Strick et al. then tested whether humor impairs product and brand memory due to its distracting effect. Further, the experimenters examined how the distraction provided by humor and the formation of implicit attitudes affect product choice. To test this, a series of ten pictures were presented twice in random order to participants. Of the ten pictures, there were two pictures of the experimental product or brands, three filler pictures that had been seen in the magazine, and five new pictures.  When participants saw the pictures, responses were made by indicating “seen before” or “not seen before”. After indicating if they had seen each of the 10 pictures before, the two brands or experimental products were presented on the computer screen simultaneously and participants indicated on 7-point scale which of these brands or products they would rather take home (Ex. 1-definitely the scissors, 4-equally gladly, and 7-definitely the ballpoint).

The results of this experiment showed that product and brand recognition accuracy was lower and reaction time was slower for the product or brand that was associated with humor. The evidence also showed that humor enhances the implicit attitude towards both products and brands because participants had a higher preference for the product or brand that was associated with humor. This experiment confirms that humor impairs product and brand memory. But, it also shows that humor creates positive implicit attitudes towards products and brands which influence product preference.

In sum, these findings have substantial implications for advertisers because implicit attitudes do in fact affect consumer decisions. First of all, the data in this experiment disproves previous studies that only looked at explicit attitudes and claimed that there is no advantage to having humor in ads. More importantly, because memory of a product or brand is impaired when humorous ads are presented but positive implicit attitudes are formed, advertisers must know how to strategically integrate this information into their work. For instance, if an advertiser is promoting a new brand or product that is at the beginning of its lifecycle, it would not be to the advertiser’s advantage to use humorous ads because people won’t remember this new brand or product. On the other hand, already established brands do not have to worry about the distracting effect because consumers already know what their product does and what their brand stands for. In this case, these brands may want to only focus their ads on humor so that they can influence consumer’s unconscious decisions. In addition, if a company sells convenience items that are cheap and sold everywhere like toiletries and soft drinks, they may want to use more humor in ads because these products are generally chosen without a deliberate decision making process. In fact, impulse buying accounts for about 80% of purchases for many convenience products. But, if a product is something that consumers generally buy after comparing brands and prices, it may not matter if the company employs humor in its ads because these decisions rely on explicit judgments that will override any implicit attitudes that are formed. Lastly, because humor is associated with positive implicit attitudes, it may be to an advertiser’s advantage to buy ad space in a funny context such as a humorous show, YouTube video, or magazine. Because this experiment shows that people unconsciously associate humor with positive feelings, associating a product in a funny context outside of the ad may influence a consumer’s choice. Whether advertisers are showing off their new ads during the Super Bowl, spreading the word through social media, or drawing the attention of passing drivers on billboards, it is important for them to understand that using humor in advertising may be one of the most effective ways for them to get consumers to choose their brand or product.


Stelter, B. (2012, November 07). Tv ratings for election night approached 2008 record. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/us/politics/tv-ratings-for-election-night-approach-2008-record.html?_r=0

Strick, M., van Baaren, R. B., Holland, R. W., & Knippenberg, A. V. (2009). Humor in advertisements enhances product liking by mere association. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied15(1), 35-45.

Turner, J. (2013, January 29). Super bowl facts: The jaw-dropping numbers behind an entertainment spectacle. Retrieved from http://www.sportingnews.com/nfl/feed/2013-01/super-bowl-facts/story/super-bowl-2013-facts-food-tv-commercials-teams-twitter-tweets-beyonce

  1. November 27th, 2013 at 00:17 | #1

    I find this conundrum to be extremely interesting. Is humor actually harming or helping advertisers main goal of making their brand ‘stick?’ The point you made about more well known products reaping a greater benefit from the utilization of humor in advertisements really shed light on real experiences I have had as a consumer. For instance, in the Super Bowl several years ago I still remember my favorite commercial of all time coming on where I erupted in laughter; however, when I relentlessly tried explaining the commercial to fans I couldn’t remember for the life of me what the commercial was advertising for! It irked me to no end, but it wasn’t until now that I realize it probably was for a less-known product or at least less-known to me personally as a consumer. On the contrary, those dumb ‘twins’ commercials for Bud Light which do have some humor component to them will always resonate with me as Bud Light commercials because it is a brand that I am highly familiar with and constantly surrounded by.

  2. December 3rd, 2013 at 23:32 | #2

    I also found this to be a thought-provoking read. While reading through the beginning of the blog post, I thought about how these results would be different if participants were DAT Individuals. As these individuals have breakdowns in controlled processes, I wonder how using humor, acting as a distractor, would affect the explicit attitudes of advertised products when compared to the original participants. I also wonder whether humor would have a stronger negative effect on the memory of the advertised product when presented in a humorous way for DAT individuals when compared to the original participants of this study.

  3. May 6th, 2014 at 18:54 | #3

    Interesting post! The most surprising aspect of this is that humor did not increase memory for a product or a brand. I would assume it would at least increase memory for brands, as brands are often more abstract than actual products. Regardless, much of advertising is about creating those positive attitudes toward a brand. There are thousands of products on the market whose only advantage is their brand. The most obvious example of this is generic prescriptions. Generic drugs are the exact same product as their higher priced branded rivals (1). Yet, most consumers prefer the branded form. This is because of the implicit attitudes consumers have towards the brand they recognize due to marketing.

    I also find it interesting that even though we cannot remember a product or brand, we still have more positive attitudes about it. Humor elicits positive emotions and feelings, which then manifest in preference for a brand or a product. If all of our memory were truly impaired, we could not associate the positive feeling with the product. This suggests that humorous advertising does engage our memory at some level. So why does it show impairments in memory then? We must perceive and process the humor for meaning. Maybe it doesn’t stick because the humor does not adequately connect to the product or brand? So when we recall it we cannot say for certain we have seen the product or brand, but it is familiar and positive. Humor does engage a myriad of brain structures. I would like to see a study examining this in further detail.

    1: Kesselheim et al. Clinical equivalence of generic and brand name drugs used in cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2008;300(21)2514-2526

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