Are you having a laugh?
Humour is an excellent mechanism for coping with stress and cementing relationships, according to author of The Choice Factory, Richard Shotton.
Richard Shotton
Behavioural Scientist, Astroten

Take a scroll back through your recent WhatsApp chats. I’m willing to bet they feature more jokey videos and GIFs than ever before.  You probably caught Matt Lucas’ impression of Boris when it went viral – so to speak. And scores if not hundreds more comedy clips.

In a time of crisis – such as the current Coronavirus pandemic – humans have an amazing capacity to laugh; advertisers would do well to remember that.

Looking for laughs

There’s more than just anecdotal evidence that we seek comedy when facing stressful situations. This chart from IMDB shows the proportion of films released per year that were comedies – there is a clear upward jump at the start of both the Great Depression and Second World War.

Source: Bo McCReady / IMDB / Harry Guild

Source: Bo McCReady / IMDB / Harry Guild

Laughter is the best medicine

The data from IMDB shouldn’t surprise us.  Humour is an excellent mechanism for coping with stress, diffusing tension, and cementing relationships. So common is it to joke about disastrous or life-threatening events that we even have a name for it – gallows humour.

There is no doubt that we are living with more stress and anxiety than before – from isolation, illness, and grief to financial and educational uncertainty. At this time of crisis, we need laughs more than ever.

As the English playwright, JB Priestly, put it: “Comedy, we may say, is society protecting itself – with a smile.”

The joke sticks

So, comedy is therapeutic – but that’s not reason enough to start sketching cartoons in every ad. There’s another good reason for building humour into marketing: it’s effective. A study by Millward Brown shows that the funnier an ad, the more impact it tends to make.

In North America, where humour is used more than in any other region, 69% of ads in the top (by Awareness Index) quintile are humorous (either funny or light-hearted), versus 44% in the bottom quartile.

The impact of humorous advertising

And it makes sense – the stories you remember and retell are the ones that make your friends laugh.

Where is all the wit?

Given all this then, why aren’t we seeing more wit in our advertising? During “normal” times, humour features in around half of ads. But a scan through current advertising shows that brands are instead opting to give solemn reminders of the support they supposedly offer.

If you haven’t already, check out this COVID-19 advertisement reel from YouTuber Microsoft Sam – messaging invariably emphasises how long a brand has “been there for you”, accompanied by wistful piano and images of empty spaces. They are so sad. And also, samey.

Distinctiveness wins

By doing the same as everyone else, these brands may feel they’re taking a safe road – but the opposite is true. If there’s one thing you can say about effective advertising, it’s that it stands out. Standing out makes you memorable.

The original evidence for this comes from the work of Hedwig von Restorff at the University of Berlin in 1933. She gave participants a long list of text consisting of strings of letters interrupted by one set of digits.  For example: pge, abf, als, lls, mhg, 153, rjs.

After a short pause, participants were asked to recall as much as they could. The results showed that items that stood out, in this case the three digits, were most likely to be remembered. We’re hardwired to notice what is distinctive. This became known as the Von Restorff, or isolation, effect.

Not just memorable – better

Standing out from the crowd is about more than being remembered though. It conveys a certain confidence.

The phenomenon has been studied by Francesca Gino, a professor at the Harvard Business School. Her first experiment took place at an academic conference where there was a strong social norm around dressing smartly. When the academics arrived, Gino surreptitiously assessed their attire. Next, she asked the academics how many citations they had received (the number of citation is a quantitative metric for judging their academic standing).

Her hypothesis was that those who had attained greater standing among their peers would be less smartly turned out as they felt comfortable deviating from the social norm. And her findings backed the hypothesis – the smarter the attire, the fewer citations.

Her study wasn’t a one-off. In another study, Gino asked students to comment on the competence of an imagined lecturer at an Ivy League university. Some heard that the 45-year-old professor attended classes in standard workwear – smartly dressed, cleanly shaven and wearing a tie. Others heard that he turned up in casual wear – unshaven, in a T-shirt.

She found that the professor who displayed nonconformist behaviour was rated as 14% more competent than the “conforming” professor.

In Gino’s words, “Since nonconformity often has a social cost, observers may infer that a nonconforming individual is in a powerful position that allows her to risk the social costs of nonconformity without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy.

Gino termed this the red sneaker effect, and it applies equally to brands as it does to people.

Breaking with po-faced norms and injecting a bit of wit into your campaigns will not only make you memorable but will also signal status.

What is there to laugh about?

You don’t need to go for full-on gallows humour. No need to mention coronavirus. But when used sensitively, a bit of lightheartedness can build a connection with your audience.

A few brands are doing it brilliantly. Budweiser has resurrected the famous “Whatsuuuuup” ads, and by pairing with the Salvation army they’ve blended humour with a serious message and stayed the right side of good taste.

So, give your audience them something to smile about and you’ll help them believe in your brand, and have your ad stay with them longer than a piece of melancholy piano music.

“Comedy, we may say, is society protecting itself – with a smile.”

Richard Shotton is author of The Choice Factory and interested in how social psychology and behavioural science can be applied to advertising to make it more effective.
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