Why isn’t humorous advertising more effective?

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.

Why Kleenex wants you to call it a tissue (kinda)

The names Kleenex, Band-aid, Duct tape, and Aspirin all are somewhat interchangeable with the category of products they represent. In a parallel universe the manufacturers would greet this with unbridled joy. After all, you need to capture a lot of mindshare to have your brand name (Band-aid, for instance) stand in for the product category’s name (adhesive bandage). But unfortunately, after a certain level that success is a bad thing because of our legal system.

In U.S. law, as well as in many other countries, once a brand name has come to represent the category as a whole it loses trademark protection unless the company that owns the trademark takes active steps to counteract the trademark erosion. If they fail, anyone will be able to use their name. In fact, that has already happened to Aspirin.¹ It’s also happened to cellophane, escalator, linoleum, videotape, and trampoline, all of which previously referred to specific brands. It’s also happened to hoover. And jacuzzi… The list could go on for quite a while.

What steps can brands take to prevent this genericide? Two examples stick out. In 2003 Xerox produced an ad that read “When you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.’” Band-aid also made a subtle change to their jingle from “I am stuck on Band-aids, ‘cause Band-aids stuck on me” to “I’m stuck on Band-aid brand, ‘cause Band-aids stuck on me”. For now those efforts seem to be enough.

Most recently this has been an issue for one of the biggest companies in the world: Google. They must have gotten very nervous when the term google was adopted as a verb. Which explains their efforts to keep it out of the dictionary. Eventually, they were successful in getting the Oxford-English dictionary to restrict the meaning of “google” to using the Google search engine only. In the decade since it seems like their efforts were worthwhile as googling something has acquired a much more specific colloquial meaning.

One does have to wonder just how successful these companies would like their efforts to be though, because they’re discouraging a lot of free advertising.


  1. Because of the split legal system aspirin has become generic in the U.S. but is still protected elsewhere.