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Journal of Consumer Research, Inc.

Consumer Response to Humor in Advertising: A Series of Field Studies Using Behavioral Observation Author(s): Cliff Scott, David M. Klein and Jennings Bryant Source: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Mar., 1990), pp. 498-501 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 24/02/2014 06:41
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Humor Field








Ina series of field studies, social and business events were promoted using humorous, non-humorous, and control formats. The humorous promotions significantly increased attendance for the social events, but showed no significant impact for business events.

he use of humorin advertising is a controversial

issue for advertisingmanagersas well as for writers, theorists, and researchers (Sternthal and Craig 1973). Advocates of humor in advertising maintain that lightheartedmessage appeals secure audience attention, increase memorability, overcome sales resistance, and enhance message persuasiveness(Duncan 1979; Duncan, Nelson, and Frontczak 1984) by c. attractingattention in a relevant way, then by imparting pleasant information and making a soft sell, all in a mixed atmosphere of relaxation and integrity" (Herold 1963, p. 1). Other researchersconsider the practice dangerous, particularlywhen humor is used in association with serious problems, misfortune, illness, or death (e.g., Runyon 1979). One approach to resolvingthe question of whetherhumorous messages stimulate greater changes in levels of audience response (McGuire 1969) may lie in investigating the impact of "judiciously used humor" (Monroe and Ehninger 1969, p. 232). Positive effects of the use of humor in advertising might be expected if two factors are present. First, the humor should be directly related to and well integrated with the objective(s) and message of the ad (i.e., the humor should contribute to the main point of the message; Klein, Bryant, and Zillmann 1982). Second, the advertised product, service, or event
*CliffScott is Associate Professorof Marketing,School of Business Administrationand Economics, CaliforniaState University, Fullerton, CA 92634. David M. Klein is Chief OperatingOfficer, The FranchisePartnership,Inc., Boca Raton, FL 33487. Jennings Bryantholds the Ronald ReaganChairof Broadcasting,College of Communication, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487. The authorswish to thank the JCR reviewersfor their most helpful comments.

should be appropriatefor the use of levity (Runyon 1979, p. 246). These two factors furtherspecify Duncan's (1979) hypothesis that humor relevant to the selling proposition will be more effective in changing audience response levels than irrelevanthumor will. The primarypurpose of this study is to test the behavioral impact of humorous versus non-humorous promotional efforts.The study attempts to determine whether relevant humor is a promotional tactic powerful enough to affectpatronageactivity within a realistic environment. A humorous promotion should be effective only if humor is relevant to the product, service, or event being promoted, that is, only if the promoted object or event may be associated with pleasure or mirth. This tenet will be tested using promotions for social events (such as a clam bake) versus business events (such as a town meeting on a zoning referendum). The following hypothesis is advanced regardinghumorous promotions' effectiveness.
Hi: Humorous promotions will increase atten-

dance only for the social events, and should either have no impact or a negative impact for the business events. The secondary purpose of this study is to provide some insight into the mechanism by which a humorous promotion might affect patronage behavior, In the current instance, humor that is well integrated into the ad may help communicate that the promoted event will be associated with lightheartedness or mirth. To the degree that this is viewed as desirable, humor may lead to anticipation of enjoyment, and anticipation of enjoyment may increase the likelihood of attendance. Thus, the following hypothesis will be tested.

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H2: Subjects exposed to humorous promotions for social events should show greaterlevels of anticipation of enjoyment than those exposed to non-humorous promotions.

Three field sites were used, with each site hosting one complete replication of the experiment. Each replication had six treatment conditions: two types of events by three promotion formats. The criterion variableof interest was the efficacyof the specific promotional format for the specific type of event, which was operationalized as the proportion of exposed households with at least one household member attending the event. A measure of nonverbal expressions of enjoyment was also used.

Field Sites and Subjects

The study involved households in three different New Englandlocations: a neighborhoodwith an association of 160 households in a university town of 30,000; an industrial/agrariantown with 811 households and 3,100 residents; an agricultural village of 204 households and 850 residents. By randomly eliminating one household from each of the first two groups, equal cell sizes were obtained for all three groups of households. Comparisons could then be made across three cells of 53 households each for events in the neighborhood of the university town, three cells of 270 households each for the events in the industrial/agrarian town, and three cells of 68 households each for events in the agriculturalvillage.

sized, black on white, photocopied fliers that were placed unfolded into residential mailboxes. For illustrative purposes, the set of-fliers for the neighborhood association picnic will be described in greater detail. The humorous version had four phrases descriptive of picnic activities, each paired with a caricature-typedrawing. The non-humorous version had four similar phrasespaired with more realistic drawings. The control version mirrored the non-humorous copy, but used no illustrations. For example, the first statement in the humorous version was, "Gourmet food from cordon bleu chefs," paired with a drawing of a beatnik-looking individual flipping a hamburgerover a hibachi. This phrase was altered in the non-humorous version to read, "Delicious food from expert cooks," and was paired with a more realistic sketch of a young man in a chef's hat grilling a hamburger.The second description in the humorous version, "luscious libations," became "delightful drinks" in the non-humorous version, with each again being paired with differing illustrations. The other two descriptions did not vary between the two versions, but the illustrations did. This acrosstreatment copy variation occurred only on the fliers for the neighborhood association picnic; the fliers for all other events kept the copy consistent across treatments and differedonly in terms of their illustrations.

Dependent Measures
Attendance. If one or more members of a household entered the grounds of the event, it was reported as an act of attendance, since the promotion could be considered at least minimally successful. The unit of analysis for this measure was the household, so the attendance of any adult member was the criterion for assessment. Multiple attendance by aduilthousehold members or the presence or absence of children had no furthereffect on attendance scores. Attendance by non-residents was likewise ignored (non-residents accounted for 0 to 26 percent of those attending). Nonverbal Expression of Enjoyment. This assessment was made on the average nonverbal expression of enjoyment of all adult household members combined. In other words, if the mother and father attended together and the father looked ecstatic to be there while the mother seemed bored, the single household score was the averageof these expressions. Three judges, who were hidden from the attendants, collaboratedin assigninga single household ratingon a scale rangingfrom -5 (labeled "seems to hate being here") to 5 (labeled "seems to love being here"). Ratings were made in integers. The collaborativejudging procedurewas used to allow for the fact that the measure requires simultaneous observation of several individuals. This leaves the researcherwith a choice. S/he may have each rater

Independent Variables
Type of Event. Each field site hosted one social event and one business event. The neighborhood association's social event was an annual picnic, the town's was a firemen'smuster, and the village's was a clam bake. The neighborhood association's business event was a general meeting and election of officers, the town's was a zoning referendum,and the village's was an open council meeting. At all events, very light attendance was expected and promotions were not expected to be vigorous. Promotional Formats. One flier in each formathumorous, non-humorous, and control-was used to promote each event. The humorous promotion was operationalizedas a cartoon with a caption. The nonhumorous promotion was operationalized as a flier with an illustration but no humor. The control promotion used neither humor nor an illustration, and was included to act as a control for the effect of the illustration itself. Aside from this variation, all subjects received similar promotional materials: letter-

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PROCEDURE Promotion Schedule and Distribution

Each household received three exposures to the same condition-specific promotional flier. The first set of fliers was distributed three weeks prior to the event, the second two weeks before the event, and the final exposure was one week before the event. Two exceptions to this schedule occurred due to the request of the neighborhood association's board of directorsto limit promotional efforts. In the case of the neighborhood picnic and business meeting, households received only one exposure to the conditionspecific promotional flier two weeks prior to the events. A list of all occupied dwellings was compiled for each field site with the assistance of town/village clerks, the secretaryof the neighborhood association, and the local mail carriers.These lists were updated prior to each event's promotions. The households on the lists were then assignedto the experimentalconditions. A random procedure placed one-third of the households at each site into each condition. With the assistanceof local mail carriers,the flierswere distributed accordingto their assignedpromotion condition and schedule. For households without a residential mailbox, the flierswere taped to the door.

Event Social Neighborhood picnic (n = 53) Clambake (n = 68) Firemen's muster (n = 270) Business Neighborhood meeting (n = 53) Zoning referendum (n = 68) Council meeting (n = 270)

Humorous promotion

No humor, no illustration

41* 67* 74*

19 46 41

17 40 39

11 9 19

14 11 17

13 13 22

at the 0.001 level Counts markedwith an asteriskdiffersignificantly NOTE: were made onlywithinrows. fromothercounts not so marked.Comparisons (i.e.,p correctedalpha Z-test forproportions Thetest used was thep corrected = 1 - (1 - a)n, where a is the observed table value, and n is the numberof made;Neterand Wasserman1974, p. 582). comparisons

(1) attempt to observe all individuals within a household group, introducing bias due to proximity, physical attractiveness, or any other factor that may induce/reduce observation of a given individual, or (2) focus on a single individual, then collaborate to produce a single score. Although the latter approachdoes not allow inter-raterreliability comparisons, it does reduce the aforementioned sources of bias, and was thereforeemployed in this instance. The judges were upper-division communication students selected via a two-step process. First, 10 students were shown photographs of faces displaying emotions rangingfrom happy to serious to angry.The eight ratersdemonstratingthe highest degreeof interrater reliability proceeded to step two. These eight rated the emotions of randomly selected shoppers in a local mall. The six raters with the highest level of inter-raterreliability acted as judges for the nonverbal expression of enjoyment measure. The measure was obtained for the social events only. This was due to the requirements of a behavioral observationdata collection format. At the social gatherings,a group of judges could stand near the entrance and observe the attendees without arousing suspicion or appearingout of place. Such was not the case at the business events, due both to their smaller attendance and to the situation's more restricted set of accepted behaviors. In the judgment of the researchers,it was not possible to gatherthese measures at the business events in a fashion sufficiently unobtrusive to yield meaningful data.

Collection of Criterion Measures

On the day of the event, two or three people who could identify local residents (e.g., town clerks, grocery checkers) were located at the entrance to record attendance by markingthe household lists. In the few instances in which an attendee was not immediately recognized, one of the researchersintroduced him/ herself to obtain identification and to determine whether the person lived within the promotion boundaries.At the social events, threejudges collaborated to determine whether the adults' facial expressions as they entered the event site indicated displeasure-pleasure.The studentsjudging facial expressions
TABLE 2 MEANSCORES OF NONVERBALLYEXPRESSED ENJOYMENT(RATED FACIALDISPLAY)AT SOCIAL EVENTS BY TYPE OF PROMOTION Humorous promotion 2.22* 2.64* 2.59* Non-humorous promotion 1.05 1.46 1.00 No humor, no illustration 0.71 1.08 0.85

Event Neighborhood picnic Clambake Firemen's muster

frommeans not so NOTE: Means markedwithan asteriskdiffersignificantly were made markedat the 0.05 levelby the Newman-Keuls test. Comparisons rows. onlywithin

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wereblind concerning the treatmentconditions of the subjects.

Data Analysis
The data for attendance were analyzed using the Ztest for proportions. The data from the judged facial expressions were analyzed by unequal-n analysis of variance.

For social events, attendance was greater among people who had received promotional material containing humorous promotions than among people receiving other types of promotions (see Table 1). The Z-tests for proportions were statistically significant for all three social events, when comparing the humorous with the non-humorous promotions. However, differencesin frequency of attendance were not significant across promotion types at any of the business events. On mean scores of judgments of non-verbalexpressions of enjoyment, analyses of variance revealed differences by type of promotion (see Table 2). The differences were statistically significant at the 0.05 level for all three social events.

Second, this study deals with event promotion only. Additional replications in other contexts are necessaryto determine the generalizabilityof the current findings. For example, the current findings may lead one to believe that the element of humor might enhance consumer response to promotions for toys and games, while having either no impact or a negative impact upon response to more serious products, such as health-relatedones, for example. The authors posit that while such statements do suggestan intriguing line of research,they must be held to the status of working hypotheses based on current knowledge. A portion of the ambiguity in the results of previous humor-in-advertising research may be due to the fact that researchers have over-generalized context and purpose. Therefore, cautious interpretation seems in order; in social event promotion, the use of humor may significantly increase attendance. More sweeping statements must await furtherinvestigation. [ReceivedMarch 1984. RevisedAugust 1989.]

Duncan, Calvin P. (1979), "Humor in Advertising:A Behavioral Perspective,"Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 7 (Fall), 285-306. , James E. Nelson, and Nancy T. Frontczak (1984), "The Effect of Humor on Advertising Comprehension," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol 11, ed. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research,432-437. Herold, D. (1963), Humor in Advertisingand How to Make It Pay, New York: McGraw-Hill. Klein, David, Jennings Bryant, and D. Zillman (1982), "Relationship Between Humor in IntroductoryTextbooks and Students' Evaluations of the Texts' Appeal and Effectiveness,"Psychological Reports, 50 (February), 235-241. McGuire, William J. (1969), "The Nature of Attitude and Attitude Change,"in The Handbookof Social Psychology, Vol. 3, eds. GardnerLindzey and Elliot Aronson, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 136-314. Monroe, Alan H. and Douglas Ehninger(1969), Principles of Speech Communication,New York: Holt, Rinehart
& Winston.

This study tests the behavioralimpact of humorous promotions within a field setting. Wherehumor is relevant to the object of the promotional effort, the manipulation is associated with increased patronagebehavior. Moreover, this effect holds over three independent replications. These results support the hypothesis that relevant humor will increase patronage activity, but that humor not relevant to the object of the promotion will have either no impact or a negative impact. The study also found support for the idea that humorous ads influence nonverbally expressed enjoyment for the events. The present field-studyresearchformat carrieswith it certain limitations. First, any field study contains many uncontrollable variablesthat may influence the results. Therefore,certain questions of internal validity accompany this approach. Further testing in a more controlled setting could address this shortcoming and provide further insight into the information processing mechanisms at work.

Neter, John and William Wasserman(1974), Applied Linear Statistical Models, Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin.

Runyon, K.E. (1979), Advertising,Columbus, OH: Charles


Sternthal, Brian and C. Samuel Craig (1973), "Humor in Advertising,"Journal ofMarketing, 37 (4), 12-18.

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