Why Funny TV Commercials Work

Advertising is about attracting, holding, and focusing attention, and nothing gets our attention like a funny TV spot. But funny is a double-edged sword.

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Why do so many advertisers use humor in their advertising? Here's the easy answer: The first trick of advertising is to make people pay attention. Funny ads attract attention.

Think of the last few commercial that you have discussed with friends or shared on Facebook. How many of them weren't funny to you? Among my friends, I've been keen to share everything from the slapstick comedy of The Papermate Profile, to the wry humor of the Mac versus PC ads, to the gentle whimsy of Coca-Cola's Vending Machine, and the pun from this Berlitz ad. Even if you have seen them before you would probably be happy to watch most of those ads again. That alone is a pretty powerful incentive for advertisers to enlist the power of humor.

For an advertiser, the most important question is: How do I get more attention to my message? How do I get what I have to say to stick in people's heads?

Neuroscience suggests that our attention is instinctively directed to anything that previous experience indicates is potentially good or bad. Loud noises and images of gore attract our attention because we're taught to fear them. But negative associations don't lend themselves well to advertising other than PSA announcements. If the intention is to make people feel good about a brand then enlisting negative emotions to get them to get attention may well backfire even if it is only because the content is out of keeping with the context. In some cases the response may be so negative that people respond negatively to both the ad and the brand. According to the posting on YouTube this "dog breath" ad was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K and Republic of Ireland due to 700 complaints that the ad made some viewers physically sick. Now that you've been warned:

The second challenge for advertisers -- and the most important challenge -- isn't merely to attract attention but to hold attention and focus it. If an ad is going to evoke a response that will last longer than a few seconds, it must cause a feeling related to the brand to be planted in people's memories. The ad must create a virtual magnifying glass that highlights something specific in relation to the brand--some fact, idea, or impression--and give it enough emotional charge to become established in memory. In my opinion, this ad for Coca-Cola captures the essence of what the brand stands for without saying a word.


So there are good reasons why advertisers use humor in advertising but there is also one obvious risk. Funny is hard.

Everyone likes a good joke. Not everyone will agree on what makes good joke. Remember the deliberately inappropriate Groupon ads that caused a riot in the media during last year's Super Bowl? It's hard to find a way they helped the company. Or take this Kohler ad about a blind man falling in love with the design of a sink. You might find it clever. Plenty of other people found it borderline offensive.

What's more, there is the risk that the joke will overwhelm the brand and the message. If you watched the dog breath ad can you still remember which brand it was for? I doubt it. We call this the "video vampire" effect. It is present in all forms of video advertising, but it is a particular risk for humorous ads. Viewers may be so distracted by the joke that they remember neither the brand nor its intended message.

Finally, humor is culturally specific. Subtle references and puns tend to travel badly. On the other hand, jokes like Heineken's "Walk-In Fridge" used a commonly understood stereotype that works in any language.

"A joke is a very serious thing," Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying. It's certainly true in the multi-billion-dollar world of TV marketing. Most major advertisers pay to test their TV commercials with a small sample of the target audience before the ad actually goes on TV and for good reason. A humorous ad will get people's attention and enhance affection for the brand. A bad joke might get the kind of attention that undermines affection for the brand. With ad budgets running to millions of dollars no one wants to waste money by irritating their potential customers.