Memorable ads like the Yellow Pages’ ‘Not happy Jan’ make liberal use of humour to connect with their audience, and it seems Australian advertisers are more likely to aim for the funny bone than their US or Chinese counterparts.
New research from the Australian School of Business comparing television advertising in the three countries has found Australia has the highest percentage of humorous ads, at 36 per cent, followed by the US with 29 per cent and 25 per cent in China.
Research co-author, Ms Heather Crawford, said the expectation was that the US and Australia would have a similar proportion of ads with humorous appeals to the US.
“Australia is often held to be very close to the US in terms of culture, but in terms of humour style and appreciation it appears we are closer to the UK,” says Ms Crawford.
“Previous studies have shown that the UK has much higher levels of intended humour in ads than the US, and Australian figures are comparable,” she says.
Ms Crawford suggests the greater use of humour in Australia could be linked to a national character that likes to cut down anyone or anything that appears to take itself too seriously.
“Nearly every major commercial radio station in Australia boasts a morning show that is humour based, and the most successful television programs produced in Australia often rely on humour with cynical social commentary such as ‘The Chasers War on Everything’. This irreverence extends to product appeals and affects advertiser choice of campaign strategy,” she says.
Along with connecting to the national psyche, another reason for business to embrace the humorous appeal, says Ms Crawford, is that it is extremely effective in gaining attention to the ad.
“With increasing numbers of promotional messages aimed at consumers, breaking through the clutter has become extremely important,” she says.
“If the ad is perceived by consumers to be humorous (rather than just attempting to be humorous), then it can build positive attitudes toward the ad. This then links to a positive attitude toward the brand and purchase intention.”
However humorous appeals can also be risky, and advertisers need to be aware of the pitfalls. Humour can sometimes backfire, and there can be a fine line between funny and offensive.
“A consumer’s perception of the humour in an appeal will be affected by a variety of socio-demographic and
personality factors. Failed humour can negatively affect the advertiser’s reputation and market share. This may be because they are seen as inept or offensive,” says Dr Crawford.
“Advertising is usually targeted to a specific market segment, and the creative team will develop a campaign calculated to appeal to that particular audience.
“This may mean that the ads are seen as funny by that audience, but may be offensive to other groups. An example is the Toohey’s Dry ‘Tongue’ ad that was very successful with the target audience of young men, but found to be distasteful by most women.”
The research also examined humour ‘themes’ to discover whether there were cultural differences in the appeals. One of the key themes examined was whether the humour was aggressive or non-aggressive.
“Aggressive humour is based on the target of humour being an individual or group perceived as being different in some way. These themes denigrate others to elicit humour based on superiority, competitiveness and shadenfreude. Non-aggressive themes include nonsense humour.
“The US sample of TV ads had significantly more aggressive themes to their humour, at 49 per cent, than either Australia at 24 per cent, or China, 6 per cent,” says Ms Crawford.
“This again reveals the differences in advertising strategy as a reflection of popular culture,” she says.
Further research is being completed that extends the understanding of how audiences respond to humorous appeals in the three countries. This will provide both the advertiser perspective as evidenced in their choice of appeals, and consumer response to those appeals.
“The aim is to develop methods of standardising humorous ads so that they can be used in multiple countries and achieve a high effectiveness of response,” says Ms Crawford.