Do Funny Ads Work?

In 1920, nobody knew. Nobody knows today, either.

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"Avoid humor."

John Caples, the legend in direct-response advertising who wrote the famous "They laughed when ..." ads, had strong feelings how to sell stuff with jokes. And his feelings boiled down to this: Stop trying to be funny. "You can entertain a million people and not sell one of them," he said. "There is not a single humorous line in two of the most influential books in the world, namely, the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalog."

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Well, so much for Sears Roebuck catalogs and so long to avoiding humor in advertising. A majority of TV ads now contain "some humorous elements." But, after much ink has been spilled trying to add a research backbone to Caples' claim, it's still not clear whether Caples was cranky or prescient. 

The first challenge of studying humor in advertising is that it's pretty much a methodological nightmare to quantify funniness. The world is not divided into two clean categories, hilarious ads and perfectly serious commercials. There are ads that try to be funny but are not. There are ads that don't try to be funny but are. And there are ads -- thousands of ads -- that try to delight us and elicit a "meh."

It seems intuitive that legitimately funny messages are memorable, which helps keep their products top-of-mind, provided that the audience recalls what exactly the advertisement was about. But decades of research has suggested that humor simply isn't special, and it certainly isn't any more effective that a clear, simple, serious message. One recent study from the University of Colorado, Denver, found that we tend to remember the extremes -- awesomely funny ads and (ironically) awfully lame ones.

I was reminded of some of this reading into the history of humor in advertising recently when I was asked during an interview to explain, "what sort of things young people find funny." I paused, thought for a moment, realized that any attempt at an answer would be pointless, and responded that I thought the question was akin to asking, "what sort of colors do young people like?" I don't know. All sorts?

Still, just because humor is somewhat ineffable doesn't mean there aren't things to learn about it. Some research shows that men and young people in general prefer aggressive humor, where somebody "wins" the interaction, while women, older people, and richer people tend to prefer affiliative humor, which is victimless. A recent Nielsen special report on Boomer versus Millennial attention spans concluded that aging brains are more easily distracted and better process repetition, which younger brains have "better attention capture, engagement, and memorability" makes them receptive to faster edits and quick slapstick humor.

Ultimately, however, the sheer amount of the research into humor in advertising is another data point to tell us what we already know, which is that nobody has any clue what sort of advertising works until it works. If you really want somebody to remember something, make it impossible for them to forget it ...

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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