Humor in advertisement

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In 1989, in the United States, it was estimated that about one quarter of TV prime time advertisements contained humor. Most experts and executives in the world of advertisement believed in fact that they had more success than advertisements in which irony and fun were missing. Yet, there was no solid scientific evidence supporting it.

Humor is a difficult subject to study. Different people react in a different way to the same type of humore. Some audiences prefer certain jokes, gags, targets of a prank. In 1992, Weinberger and Gulas, two researchers from the University of Massachussets, decided to analyze the available literature, trying to answer to four questions about humor in advertisement:

  1. What communication goals are most likely to be achieved through the use of humor?
  2. What executional or message factors are likely to affect the outcome?
  3. For what audience is humor most appropriate?
  4. What product factors suggest the use or non-use of a humorous approach?

Communication goals

Researchers thus analyzed the results of previous research, studying the effects of humor on attention, comprehension, persuasion, source credibility and liking.

For what concerned attention, research seemed to confirm what the experts in advertisement felt: humor has a positive effect. In 1987, Paul Speck from the University of Missouri concluded that funny advertisements were more effective than ads devoid of humor for four different types of attention (initial, sustained, projected and overall attention). But not every type of humor is effective. Only related humor is, that is when humor is tied to the type of product or service advertised. Otherwise, there is the perception of a “canned” humor, that is forced and not genuine.

On comprehension, results are mixed. It was proved that, in education, humor has always a positive effect (or at least neutral), so much so that this phenomenon was classified as a bias, called precisely the humorous effect. In advertisement, instead, there is a better comprehension only for actual products, and not fictional, otherwise there is the opposite effect.

Persuasion and credibility of the source seem not to be influenced by humor, while liking of the source increases, both in the world of advertisement and that of education. In fact, humor can make a professor, a brand, and even a textbook more appreciated. There are no scientific studies that report a negative effect of humor on source liking.

In 1989, in the US, it was estimated that about one quarter of TV prime time advertisements contained humor.

The type of humor and placement

It is difficult to categorize the different types of humor. A person can find a certain thing funny, while it may not cause any type of reaction in another. What emerged from previous studies was that 69% of humorous ads in the US contained a certain degree of incongruity, a humorous contrast that subverted expectations, provoking a laughter or a smile. But there is no specific type of humor that has a universal positive or negative effect.

Placement means the medium, the context and the degree of repetition of an ad. Executives believed, then rightfully supported by scientific research, that TV and radio were the best media for humor. So much so that 31% of radio advertisement and 24% of TV ads contained humor, compared with the 10% of those in newspapers. A problem with humor is the fact that ads could become boring, exhausting their effect faster than other advertisements.

The best audience the product factors

Most advertisers seem to agree on the fact that humorous ads have their best audience in young and better educated males. And research confirms this belief. The reason maybe is to be found in the type of humor that this kind of audience seems to prefer, which perhaps is especially more suitable to be used in ads. Then, different products could use different types of humor, depending on the target.

In addition, the type of product influences the effect of humor. As previously mentioned, actual products are more suitable for this kind of advertisement. Moreover, Madden and Weinberger, in 1984, proved that ads for low-involvement products, such as snacks, wine and beer, were better recalled than high-involvement products, such as fashion clothing or perfumes. And this was reflected in the frequency of humor in ads for these products (40% for low-involvement vs. 10% for high-involvement).

Thus, humor seems to have, for the most part, positive effects in the world of advertisement. But humor, the researchers warn, never was, never is and never will be a magic wand that assures the success of an ad. In some situations, humor can be appropriate and effective, while in others it can be out of place, making whoever watches or listens to it uncomfortable or embarrassed. As always, for strategic communication, it is essential to think of the You that will benefit of the product or service and the Context in which the message is communicated.

Carlo Sordini


  1. Weinberger, M., & Gulas, C. (1992). The Impact of Humor in Advertising: A Review. Journal of Advertising, 21(4), 35-59. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from
  2. Avner Ziv (1988) Teaching and Learning with Humor, The Journal of Experimental Education, 57:1, 4-15, DOI: 10.1080/00220973.1988.10806492
  3. Haley, R. I., & Baldinger, A. L. (1991). The ARF Copy Research Validity Project. Journal of Advertising Research, 31(2), 11–32.
  4. Madden, Thomas & Weinberger, Marc. (1984). Humor in Advertising: A Practitioner Perspective. Journal of Advertising Research. 24. 23-29.

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