Written by Jareef Martuza, Ph.D. candidate at the Norwegian School of Economics
Credits: Jung von Matt for the DHL "Chicken or egg" campaign in December 2008.
Ever wondered why some humoristic ads make you feel positive toward the company showing the ad, while others do not? The answer, as Chi Hoang, Klemens Knöferle, and Luk Warlop discovered, lies in the type of humor employed.
The collaboration led to the research article “Using different advertising humor appeals to generate firm-level warmth and competence impressions” published in the IJRM (In Press). Hoang and colleagues (2023) conducted two studies, one of which was a large-scale survey with nearly 6,000 participants. Their research shows that the effects of humor in ads go beyond consumers’ general attitudes toward the ad and the advertised product.
On a pleasant September afternoon, I had the opportunity to explore this and more in a conversation with the lead author Chi Hoang.
The journey of Chi Hoang into the world of humor research began unexpectedly. “It was a scene from the movie Interstellar that instantly caught my eye,” she recalls. The movie’s main protagonist, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) fine-tunes the humor setting of a highly intelligent robot and sets it to 75% for optimal interactions with other astronauts. Much like Cooper, Hoang recognized how fine-tuning humor in advertising could enhance its impact on consumers.
Hoang, alongside her advisor Klemens, both then at the BI Norwegian Business School, initiated the project, with Luk joining the team later on.
"Luk’s vast experience in ad research helped set a clear direction, while Klemens’ meticulous approach in executing studies was instrumental. The writing process was quite efficient as well: we all had a shared mental model of communicating our research clearly and succinctly.” -Chi Hoang
Humor that makes you seem more competent and warmer
Hoang and her colleagues wanted to investigate how humor in ads is linked to social cognition. That is, how humor, and what type of humor, affects people’s perceptions of how competent and warm the company telling the joke is. As they delved deeper, their research revealed different humor types in advertising significantly impact a company's perceived competence and warmth.
"Humour is a way to show that you are smart without bragging."- Mark Twain
Their first study presented participants with definitions of four humor types used in advertising and asked a series of questions to measure their reactions. They found that a humor type known as incongruity resolution, which often requires a bit of thought to 'get the joke', significantly enhanced perceptions of a company’s competence. Think of Amazon’s Super Bowl 2022 ad where Alexa reads Scarlett Johansson’s mind so well that it starts oversharing in social situations (link here).
On the flip side, a type known as tension relief humor, which typically aims to ease a viewer’s stress or tension, increases perceptions of a company's warmth. Interestingly, the study also revealed that humor types that involved making fun of oneself, or others (self/other disparaging) decreased perceptions of a company's competence and warmth. Think of Mr. Clean’s Super Bowl 2017 ad where sex appeal and playful humor combine to say at the end You gotta love a man who cleans (link here).
“Humor can be a double-edged sword. While certain types can enhance perceptions of competence and warmth, others can have the opposite effect, potentially damaging the company’s image in the eyes of consumers,”- Chi Hoang
Hoang emphasizes the delicate balance that companies need to maintain so that the humor strikes the right chord with their audience.
Do experimental findings generalize to real firms?
In their second study, Hoang and colleagues wanted to see how their theories held up in the real world. So, they gathered a large group of participants to evaluate actual advertisements. They collected 300 unique ads from magazines and online databases, showcasing a wide variety of brands and humor types. Subsequently, over 5,000 online participants evaluated these ads, focusing on how much they perceived the advertised firms to be competent and warm based on the humor used.
Their results confirmed earlier findings, showing that the type of humor used in advertising can significantly impact how consumers perceive the company behind the ad. When ads used a type of humor called incongruity resolution (remember?), that is, when the joke requires some thought to understand), consumers perceived the companies as more competent, but only if the humor was well-resolved.
On the other hand, when ads used tension-relief humor (aimed at easing a viewer's stress or tension), companies were seen as warmer. However, disparaging humor, which involves making fun of oneself or others, tended to lower perceptions of both competence and warmth. Together, these show how nuances such as the type of humor deployed in ads can influence important perceptions of the firm itself.
A funny coincidence
In 2018, I was a master’s student, and Chi Hoang was a Ph.D. student, both of us at the BI Norwegian Business School. Her Qualtrics files were templates for our methods course. So, I guess I probably got a sneak peek into some of the materials. When I saw her paper published on the IJRM website, it created that warm and fuzzy feeling. This is me trying to provide “tension relief” without the joke.
Read the paper
Interested in delving deeper into the science of humor? Click here for the full paper!
Hoang, C., Knöferle, K., & Warlop, L. (2023). Using different advertising humor appeals to generate firm-level warmth and competence impressions. International Journal of Research in Marketing, S0167811623000484. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2023.08.002
Meet Chi Hoang
Assistant Professor in Marketing at ESCP Business School, London
On a scale from 0 to 10, how would you rate your sense of humor?
I'd rate myself 9 out of 10 in my native language, Vietnamese. In my current environment in the UK, where I am still relatively new, I’d rate my sense of humor slightly lower. Because humor requires acquiring cultural understanding, references, and norms.
If you were not an academic, what would you be?
Definitely a lawyer. As an academic, I enjoy the argumentative nature of our work- convincing readers of our scientific findings. So, I would probably also have fun in the critical thinking and convincing aspects of being a lawyer.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received in life?
Be the one who bounces back stronger from failure every time. In academia, everyone is quite intelligent. In the long run, the most successful ones are not necessarily the smartest ones, but those who persevere through failures and keep pushing. I think this applies not just in a research context but also in life in general.
This article was written by
Jareef Bin Martuza
Ph.D. Candidate at the Norwegian School of Economics