Humor Research

Journal of AdvertisingHumor ResearchThe widespread use of humor, coupled with theunresolved questions regarding it, has drawn the at-tention of numerous communication researchers. Ina frequently cited review of the early literature in thefield, Stemthal and Craig (1973) drew some tentativeconclusions about the use of humor on a number ofcommunications goals. These conclusions must beviewed as tentative because, although based on athorough review of the extant literature in 1973, thisliterature base was somewhat small and consistedalmost exclusively of non-advertising studies as therewas simply little prior work in advertising to review.In the years since the Stemthal and Craig work,humor has received extensive further investigationin over 30 studies that have appeared in the marketingliterature, and a great many more studies that haveappeared in the literature streams of education,communication and psychology. This paper synthe-sizes the relevant aspects of this literatvire in order toupdate and expand on the Stemthal and Craig work.Thus, the format to be followed will be to examine theeffect of humor as it applies to various communicationsgoals and then to expand on this work by includingexecution, placement, audience, and product factorsthat have come to light in the past twenty years.Communications GoalsAs alluded to earlier, the nature of the communica-tion goal plays a major role in the appropriateness ofthe use of humor. Stemthal and Craig (1973) listedadvertising goals and the impact of humor on each ofthese goals. Revisited after twenty years of interven-ing research some of these conclusions remain cogent,while others appear to be in need of revision.Humor and AttentionStudies have shown that 94% of advertising practi-tioners see humor as an effective way to gain atten-tion. Furthermore, 55% of advertising research ex-ecutives believe humor to be superior to non-humorin gaining attention (Madden and Weinberger 1984).While the personal views of advertising executivesshould not be equated with rigorous hypothesis test-ing, these views do refiect a knowledge base built onyears of day to day experience with proprietary re-search results. And in the case of attention, thesepractitioner views appear to be well supported by theavailable empirical evidence. In studies of actualmagazine ads (Madden and Weinberger 1982), televi-sion ads (Stewart and Furse 1986), and radio ads(Weinberger and Campbell 1991) in standard indus-try ad testing situations, humor has been found tohave a positive effect on attention (see Table 1). Simi-larly, this attention effect has also been demonstratedin the laboratory. In a thorough test of attention effectsin the advertising arena. Speck (1987) compared hu-morous ads with non-humorous controls on four at-tention measures: initial attention, sustained atten-tion, projected attention and overall attention. Hefoiind humorous ads to outperform non-humorous adson each of the attention measures.The attention-attracting ability of humor has alsobeen demonstrated in education research (Powell andAndresen 1985; Zillmann et al. 1980). In a review ofthe education literature, Bryant and Zillmann (1989)conclude that humor has a positive effect on attention;however, they caution that “unqualified direct evi-dence for the effects of using humor in non-mediatedclassroom instruction is still wanting” (p. 59). Thecautionary stance taken by Bryant and Zillmann isappropriate for all the hvtmor-attention studies. Whilethe results seem to indicate a positive impact on at-tention, and in general the past twenty years of re-search largely supports the conclusion drawn byStemthal and Craig (1973) (see Table 1), future re-searchers should be aware that all humor is not cre-ated equal. Related humor, that is, humor directlyconnected to the product or issue being promoted,appears to be more successful than unrelated humor(Duncan 1979; Lull 1940; Madden 1982). In fact,controlling for the relatedness factor makes the find-ings of the experimental studies in advertisingunanimous in their support for a positive effect ofhimior on attention. This indicates that the mereinsertion of “canned” humor into a given ad is unlikelyto have the same impact on attention as the use of amore integrated humor treatment.

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