Humor is the copywriters go to strategy. In fact, according to Millward Brown more than half of TV advertisements use humor. Yet on a wide variety of measures these campaigns are ineffective. As Mark Levitt of Partners and Levitt summarizes, “Humor in advertising tends to improve brand recognition, but does not improve product recall, message credibility, or buying intentions.”
Unfortunately there isn’t much research available on the topic. While the general consensus is that humor doesn’t help much, a few studies have shown that humor is effective for lower engagement products. We can start by stating that humor is overused, then, since it is used in campaigns for more expensive purchases all the time. But, there is a second factor that we should consider, as well. Humor, when it is studied in advertising, is treated homogeneously, but it shouldn’t be because it actually breaks down along two distinct dimensions.
Let’s compare two ads to get a feel for the different styles.
As you’ll notice, one ad wants us to find humor from somebody using their product, while the other one wants us to find it from someone not using their product. A second difference is the degree to which the humor relates to the benefit the ad tries to convey – does it reinforce the point or is it really there to get attention?
From a psychology and branding perspective, using humor that puts your brand or product in a bad light is a bad idea. That’s why the “Jake from State Farm” commercials are an example of the wrong type of humor. Using State Farm’s product creates a negative experience for the customer in the ad – it causes an unpleasant interaction with his wife. That may raise our awareness of State Farm but how could it increase our intention to buy? Many people would view the ad as a success because it has staying power and entered our cultural consciousness in a way that few advertisements do. But the actual barometer is long term sales. Does the ad make us more likely to use State Farm? I doubt it.
On the other hand, the Berlitz ad makes us laugh at people who don’t use their product and the humor also reinforces the product’s benefit. Our awareness of Berlitz rises and we become more likely to use Berlitz because it resolves the situation we are laughing at.
It’s a simple but key distinction. In an advertising sense, to be effective humor doesn’t need to improve an opinion of a brand (we think State Farm is funnier now but that doesn’t make us want to use their service) it needs to effectively highlight the brand’s benefits and make us more likely to purchase it. Audi’s ‘Grandpa Bode’ commercial is another good example of a humorous ad for those reasons. Celebrity endorsement aside, it is effective.
Moving forward, humor shouldn’t just be inserted into a commercial to raise its memorability. That may get views but it won’t sell product. But ads using positive brand humor, that is focused on the selling point, may prove to be more beneficial.