We’ve all seen times when humour has worked to change someone’s mind. A salesperson might have disarmed you with a joke and five minutes later you’re reaching for your credit card.
Humour in advertising and other forms of communication seems to be almost everywhere. Previous studies have found that 30 per cent of advertisements contained some attempt at humour (Beard 2005).
But does it work? Well, really understanding the relationship between humour and persuasion is a difficult task. For example, what might be funny to me might be deeply upsetting or offensive to you. And how do you measure humour? Is something absolutely hilarious the same as something that generates one of those polite laughs you do when your dad makes one of his terrible jokes? And how do you ensure that the humour is consistent with your brand, given its highly subjective nature?
New research out this month has tried to synthesise all the previous work in this difficult area to help people decide whether humour is worth the risk.
Looking specifically at the effects of 79 studies into whether humour was demonstrably persuasive, Walter et. al. (2018) found that humour did have a significant but technically weak effect on changing behavioural intentions. In rough terms, including humour increases the chance of having a positive impact on behaviour change by 9 per cent, compared to the use of non-humourous attempts in the current scientific literature.
While in statistical terms a 9 per cent effect size is classified as a weak effect, in the messy and difficult world of persuasion a 9 per cent increase is actually pretty good.
Importantly the effect on a person’s intentions was stronger on when the humour directly related to the behaviour change they were seeking, with the effect size rising to 17 per cent as opposed to a megre 0.1 per cent for unrelated jokes. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is no effect for people using humour in health communications. People usually take their health pretty seriously and joking about that seems like a pretty bad idea.
The type of humour (sarcasm, parody, ‘clown-like’) doesn’t seem to have an effect and neither does the channel used.
There are some opportunities to build on this research. For example it would be really interesting to see if someone could come up with a measure of humour quality to take this research to the next level. It may well be that high quality humour has a much stronger effect.
However the opposite might also be true, as the study’s lead author Assistant Professor Nathan Walter pointed out to us. “Humour is a risky vehicle for persuasive messages because if the joke is truly funny, it can easily distract and overwhelm the persuasive message'” Professor Walter said. “In other words, humourous messages are effective to the extent that they are able to compliment the persuasive elements rather than trying to produce memorable punchlines.”
In summary, if you are going to use humour for persuasion make it directly relevant to the behaviour change you’re looking for and definitely don’t try to make jokes about people’s health.
- Beard, F. K. (2005). One Hundred Years of Humor in American Advertising. Journal of Macromarketing, 25(1), 54–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/0276146705274965
- Walter, N., Cody, M.J., Xu, L.Z. and Murphy, S.T., 2018. A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Minister Walk into a Bar: A Meta-Analysis of Humor Effects on Persuasion. Human Communication Research.