Whether it’s messages on smartphone Apps or the old fashioned way on billboards, radio and TV, advertisers bombard us relentlessly. Fortunately, our brains have an inbuilt BS-detector that shields us from the onslaught – a mental phenomenon that psychologists call simply “resistance”. Ads from dodgy companies, our own pre-existing preferences, and a forewarning of a marketing attack can all marshal greater psychological resistance within us. However, a new study suggests that funny adverts lower our guard, leaving us vulnerable to aggressive marketing.
Madelijn Strick and her team exposed 86 Dutch university students to pictures of 12 foreign peppermint brands, each of which appeared together with one of four types of text: funny; positive but unfunny; distracting neutral (simple maths problems); and non-distracting neutral. Crucially, before they saw the brands and text, half the students were primed to be resistant. They were told that the experiment was being conducted in collaboration with a cunning local supermarket manager who was planning to bombard university students with email and text ads, and that he was even willing to use subliminal messages to make more money.
Three minutes after seeing the brands (during which they completed irrelevant filler tasks), the students completed tests designed to gauge the impact the brands had made on them. They were shown pictures of peppermint brands, some new, and had to say as quickly and accurately as possible whether they’d seen them earlier or not. Another test involved pictures of one of the original brands being flashed on-screen before a positive or negative word, and participants had to categorise the words. Brands with positive connotations would be expected to speed up the recognition of positive words.
As expected, those students who were primed to be resistant tended to perceive the brands as having more negative connotations … unless that is, the brands were accompanied by distracting text, be that humorous or neutral. The distracting text appeared to interfere with the automatic processes that usually underlie our resistance to aggressive marketing. Separately from nullifying resistance, positive text (humorous or not) led to the brands acquiring positive connotations.
Another study tested whether these effects had any bearing on actual consumer behaviour. A similar procedure was followed but this time the brands were energy drinks and accompanying pictures were used rather than text (as before, these were: humorous; positive but unfunny; neutral non-distracting; and neural distracting). A new batch of students, as well as completing the post-presentation tests, also indicated how many discount coupons they wanted for each brand.
Regardless of whether they were primed to be resistant, students generally preferred brands that had been accompanied by positive images (funny or not). For students primed to be resistant, it was specifically brands accompanied by funny and neutral-distracting images that were more popular. The more resistance the students said they felt, the more they tended to show a favourable bias towards the brands accompanied by a humorous picture.
Strick and her team said that humour has a double effect – because it’s distracting, it prevents the formation of negative brand associations, and separately it engenders positive connotations for the brand because of the pleasure of mirth. These effects were implicit in the sense that they occurred regardless of whether participants remembered that a brand had been paired earlier with humour. There was also a cost (to advertisers) of humour – brands were remembered less well if they were accompanied by funny text or pictures, presumably because of their distracting effect.
Taken altogether, the results paint a nuanced picture. “The main contribution of this research is not the overall conclusion that humour in ads ‘works’,” the researchers said, “but that it sheds light into when and why humour should be preferred over non humorous positive emotions and neutral distractions.” For brands that expect to meet resistance in their target audience, humour can help prevent the formation of negative associations. But distraction should be used in moderation – too much and the brand won’t be remembered. From the consumers’ perspective, beware advertisers bearing jokes – they could be using them to lower your guard.
Strick M, Holland RW, van Baaren RB, and van Knippenberg A (2012). Those who laugh are defenseless: How humor breaks resistance to influence. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 18 (2), 213-23 PMID: 22564085