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So Funny?

Persuasion Experts and Researchers Still Struggle to Determine:

“What’s So Funny?”

Holly Elko

James Madison University

SCOM 341

Literature Review
What’s So Funny?

Persuasion Experts and Researchers Still Struggle to Determine:

“What’s So Funny?”

Since 4th century B.C, Aristotle’s Rhetoric has been used as a framework to

explain various modes of persuasion (Cooper, 1932). Ethos, logos, and pathos are all

terms used to classify the speaker’s different appeals to the audience. By appealing to the

audience’s emotions, pathos serves as one of the most powerful methods (Cooper, 1932).

Over time, many researchers have studied the effect of motivational persuasion,

specifically humorous appeals. Although the appeal a speaker chooses is dependent on

many factors, such as context of the message, it appears many persuasive messages

involve humor. This topic of humorous appeals is important to study further because of

the prevalence of them, the variety of theories they can be incorporated into, and the

simple fact that, in the right context, humorous appeals work; they’re very persuasive!

Researchers have studied and debated on how many persuasive messages the

average person is exposed to per day. Some believe we are potentially exposed to 3,000

advertising messages per day (Dupont, 1999), while others agree with that potential, their

estimates are more conservative between 300 to 1,500 advertising messages (Jones,

2004). Regardless of the volume of messages, humorous appeals account for anywhere

from 21-48% of all advertisements (Toncar, 2001). Similarly, some comedians and

television personalities serve as advertisements alone. People like Ellen DeGeneres hold

major influential power with a fan base, media attention, and a platform to share ideas. If

the average person is inevitably bombarded with messages throughout the day, the ones

that make them laugh are surely more memorable (Eisend, 2009).
What’s So Funny?

In addition to them being unavoidable, humorous appeals are important to study

further because they can be implemented in various persuasion theories and methods. For

example, Cacioppo and Petty (1986a) developed one of the most widely cited persuasion

models, called the elaboration likelihood model. Depending on an individual’s motivation

and ability to process information, they will either engage in central or peripheral

processing (Cacioppo & Petty, 1986a). Humorous appeals mainly function in a peripheral

route by focusing the audience on cues not directly related to the message. Similarly,

cognitive dissonance theory speaks of buyer remorse and counterarguments audience

members might experience (Festinger, 1957). Humor has been known to reduce and

suppress counterarguments, by serving as a distraction, even if it’s temporary (Young,

2008). Persuasion theories that involve distractions, emotion, deception, and other

peripheral routes, can use humor as a tool.

Lastly, and most importantly, humorous appeals must be discussed and studied

more, simply because of their effectiveness. Advertising practioners agree, 94% of them

see humor as an effective way to gain attention. More than half of advertising research

experts believe advertisements that use humor are more successful in gaining attention

compared to the ones that don’t (Madden, Weinberger, 1984). Another study shows

humor enhancing measure of persuasion such as: attitudes towards a brand and purchase

intentions (Eisend, 2009). In addition to these appeals increasing persuasion methods,

they also have an effect on source credibility. Although Eisend (2009) discovered humor

can reduce credibility, when used in the right contexts and in the right ways, humor can

actually increase the speaker’s likability. A study done by Graham, Papa, and Brooks

(1992), suggests the speaker’s ability to laugh at themselves demonstrates them as

What’s So Funny?

friendly and good-natured. Regardless if it’s used as a distraction, a way to lighten up the

mood, or an effort to increase likeability of the speaker, humorous appeals are an

effective method of persuasion.

Literature Review

Attention Gaining

Over time, many researchers have studied how humor affects attention gaining in

a particular advertisement (Duncan, 1979; Madden & Weinberger, 1984; Speck, 1987;

Sternthal & Craig, 1973; Strick, Holland, van Baaren, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis,

2013; Weinberger & Gulas, 1992). Although other elements of humorous appeals, such

as comprehension and source credibility, have been generally inconclusive, increased

attention appears to be something most researchers agree on. Despite the fact that

adequate information regarding this topic exists, the relevancy of that information today

is being debated. Beard (2005) conducted an extensive study on humor in advertising

over the past century in America. His review shows attention grabbing as a main effect of

humorous ads in the early 1900’s, throughout the ‘20s, and onto the post 9/11 time

period. Beard (2005) suggests the concept of humor attracting attention was referenced

and used by practitioners throughout the twentieth century.

Madden and Weinberger (1984) surveyed 140 U.S. advertisement executives on

their perceptions of the effectiveness of humor appeals. When executives were asked if

they see humor as an effective way to gain attention, 94% of them said yes. As mentioned

previously, 55% of executives see humor appeals as more effective to non-humor

appeals, regarding attention gaining. Speck (1987) tested this difference between

humorous and non-humorous ads and their effect on attention. Under the four different
What’s So Funny?

attention measures: initial attention, sustained attention, projected attention, and overall

attention, Speck (1987) studied 182 undergraduates. The results showed humor ads out

performing non-humor ones on all 4 attention measures.

Eisend (2009) did an extensive review and analysis on previous literature

regarding humor appeals, and then conducted a meta-analysis on humor’s effect in

advertising, using more current data. Included in this study was a table of previous

academic reviews on humorous appeals, and several outcome variables, such as cognitive

responses and purchases intentions. For each study he included, the outcome variable for

gaining attention, shared a positive correlation with humor. This means all of the studies

mentioned, indicate that humor enhances the attention of the audience (Duncan, 1979;

Madden & Weinberger, 1984; Speck, 1987; Sternthal & Craig, 1973; Weinberger &

Gulas, 1992).

Eisend (2009) found that 15 years after the most recent publication, these effects

remained the same. He gathered empirical evidence from over 50 manuscripts of various

studies, eventually using 43 individual studies. After completing the computerized

keyword searches, and gathering all of the data, the results show that correlations

throughout many studies reveal humorous appeals still having a positive impact on

gaining attention. Another study found that humor can also increase motivation to

process ads, possibly by its ability to gain attention (Zhand & Zinkham, 2006). To

summarize, studies of humorous appeals have revealed consistent positive effects on

attention grabbing, regardless of the time period.

What’s So Funny?

Unlike attention gaining, the idea of humor increasing source credibility is

constantly debated. Researchers such as Charles Gruner (1967), believe humor can have a

positive impact on perceived credibility of the speaker. He conducted a study of two

speeches, with similar information, one completely serious, and one with appropriate

humor placed in the “right” contexts. The results support the assumption that speakers

who use humor are considered to have more character, thus being liked more by their

audience (Gruner, 1967). Another study conducted by Speck (1987), found that certain

types of humor enhanced the perceived trustworthiness of the source, specifically

sentimental humor. When a source is perceived to be trustworthy, credibility increases.

Additionally, an article discussing the role of humor in persuasion, provides multiple

examples to assert their claim that overall, humor tends to enhance source credibility

(Sternthal & Craig, 1973).

Although some studies support the notion of humorous appeals enhancing source

credibility, others do not. Madden and Weinberger (1984) surveyed vice presidents and

directs of research and directors of creative services on their opinions about the

communication objectivities of humor. One of the questions asked if these practitioners

believe humor, compared to non-humor, enhances source credibility. Results showed

only 10% of respondents thought this to be true (Madden & Weinberger, 1984). In

addition, the study mentioned that increased trustworthiness, also showed results of

humorous ads decreasing perceived knowledgableness of the source. Similarly, the meta-

analysis done by Eisend (2009) claims humor significantly reduces source credibility.

Its fair to say the findings of humor and its effect on source credibility, are

generally mixed. Just like any motivational appeals, there are many factors to consider
What’s So Funny?

when discussing the best methods to use. For example, Weinberger and Gulas (1992)

believe the things like the nature of the source and the nature of the humor itself, are

explanations for mixed results. While in certain contexts humor would increase

credibility, however, the use of inappropriate humor can decrease perceptions of

credibility (Derks, Kalland, & Etgen, 1995). Similar to other persuasion methods, humor

appeals and its effect on source credibility can be best described with the motto: it


Likeness of the Source/Product

Although humorous appeals have mixed findings on source credibility,

researchers seem to agree that humor can increase the liking of a source, thereby

enhancing persuasion (Speck, 1987; Sternthal & Craig, 1973; Weinberger & Gulas 1992)

Weinberger and Gulas (1992) explain that source credibility speaks of truth and

expertise, which are cognitive aspects, while source-liking involves non-cognitive affects.

Their literature review found that in both advertising and non-advertising studies, overall

humor had a positive impact on the liking of the source (Speck, 1987; Sternthal & Craig,

1973). One review in particular claimed, “a humorous context may increase liking for the

source and create a positive mood. This may increase the persuasive effect of the

message (Strenthal & Craig, 1973, p. 17). Similarly, Speck’s (1987) experiment found

four out of five types of humor significantly increased likability of the source, compared

to non-humor. Perhaps this phenomenon can be explained by a study done by Graham,

Papa, and Brooks (1992). Their results found poking fun at oneself can increase the

audience’s perception of him/her, and being able to laugh at yourself shows you are

friendly and good-natured.

What’s So Funny?

In addition to increased likeness of the source, humorous appeals can be effective

in increasing likeness for the product or brand itself (Gelb & Picket, 1983). As Biel and

Bridgewater (1990) claimed individuals who liked a commercial a lot were twice as

likely to be persuaded by it, compared to those who felt neutral. Brooker (1981) tested

this concept against fear appeals. He found the use of mild humor, compare to mild fear,

was more effective in increasing likeness for both products, the toothbrush and the

vaccine. Also, Eisend (2009) suggest humor enhances attitudes toward and brand, and

purchase intentions. Research indicates that, overall, when humor is used in the right

contexts, it can positively influence perceptions of likeness of the product, which

enhances persuasion.

When Does it Work?

Similar to other motivational appeals and various methods of persuasion, when

discussing humorous appeals, it’s essential to know two things: when they work, and

when they don’t. The difficulty with measuring persuasive effectiveness of humor, is that

there are many forms of it, and some are simply better than other (Eisend, 2009). Madden

and Weinberger (1984) believe its naïve to expect humor to work the same under all

circumstances, which is why they gathered data on the most effective mediums, products,

and audiences, to use humor on. In terms of media, respondents said radio and television

are best suited for humor, whereas newspaper and direct mail are seen as least suited.

Regarding products, executives felt as if humor was best suited for consumer nondurables

and business services, and less suited for corporate advertising. Finally, when asked of

the best suited audience for humorous appeals, results indicated those who’re youthful,

better educated, upscale, and male (Madden & Weinberger, 1984).

What’s So Funny?

In addition to knowing when to use humorous appeals, it’s important to know

when it’s not appropriate the use them. For example, while 88% of executives agree

humor works best when related to a product, 87 of them mentioned in an open ended

question, not to use humor with serious goods, services, or issues (Madden &

Weinberger, 1984). Additionally, Weinberger and Gulas (1992) explain how related

humor, when it is relevant to the content, is more persuasively effective than unrelated

humor. On the other hand, one study found humor actually distracted participants from

brands, which negatively affects brand recall and recognition (Strick, Holland, van

Baaren, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 2013). In order to do it right, researchers give

the advice of not to over-do a humorous appeal (Nabi, Moyer-Guse, & Byrne, 2007.) If

the audience doesn’t believe you’re serious about a message, why should they be?

Negative effects could be the audience discounting your message as a mere joke.

Is it Persuasive?

Over the years, many research has been conducted to study motivational appeals

and their effect on persuasion, specifically, humorous appeals. As discussed earlier,

humor can increase attention, source credibility, and likeness of a course, but is it

persuasive? All of these elements are known to enhance levels of persuasion; overall

research is inconclusive on if humor appeals are truly persuasive. While liking the

product and laughing at an advertisement is important in humorous appeals, behavior and

attitude change is what persuasion is all about. For example, Speck’s (1987) study found

three out of 5 humor treatements to increased the perceived product quality and increased

intent to use to the product. In this case, humor was effective in persuading. However,

another study of textbook illustrations found no humor to be more persuasive than

What’s So Funny?

moderate or extensive humor (Bryant, Brown, Silberberg, & Elliot, 1981). When tested

with repeated pairing of a brand with a humorous appeal, results led to a direct implicit

attitude change (Strick, Holland, van Baaren, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 2013).

Additionally, some researchers support other appeals more, for instance Verma’s (2009)

study claims although humor can be effective, other appeals such as fear and pride, are

found to be superior.


Upon reviewing various forms of literature on this topic, it’s fair to state that not

enough certainty exists among researchers. For example, some studies suggest that the

best target audience for humorous appeals is young white males (Madden & Weinberger,

1982). For this reason, many studies conducted in this field are done on this

demographic. These studies include: Duncan and Nelson (1985) on 157 male

undergraduates and Gruner’s (1967) study on 128 male undergraduates. Due to this idea,

women, uneducated people, and lower class individuals are underrepresented in research.

It’s important more research be done on other demographics, due to the wide range of

products and services that are offered to them. Humorous appeals need to be tested in

other formats as well, like social media.

In addition to the lack of agreement among researchers, questions of what humor

is defined as and what constitutes humor still remain. Because of its subjectivity, humor

can take many forms, hence why researchers study a variety of types (Brooker, 1981,

Speck, 1987). Nonetheless, once more research is done, and on more people, reaching

consensus about certain elements will be possible. For instance, many studies suggest

humor increase liking of a source (Speck, 1987; Sternthal & Craig, 1973); however, not
What’s So Funny?

many confirm that this increased likely, leads to effective persuasion. In conclusion, only

more research will answer these questions that remain.

Conclusion and Future Studies

Upon researching humorous appeals in persuasion, it was a struggle to find more

current and reliable studies. Throughout most of the literature, a recurring theme amongst

them was the mentioning of a few extensive and popular studies within that field. For

example, Madden and Weinberger’s (1982) study was used for reference in almost all of

the reviews synthesized here. Additionally, Sternthal and Craig (1973) findings of source

credibility and likeness of the source were mentioned throughout various articles. These

studies seem to be thought of as cannons in the field of humorous appeals. Although

these popular articles are recognizable throughout fields of persuasion and they’re

sufficient in their depth, they might not be all that generalizable. New developments in

communication research and changes in society in general call for far more recent

research in humor appeals. Approaches that worked well in the 80’s might not be

applicable in 2017. In other words, people change and what people find funny changes as


Also, within this field of research seemed to be a pattern of studying similar

demographics, specifically, middle class, white, educated people. In order to gather data

that fairly represents the population, various groups of people must be studied. Many

researchers chose to study undergraduate students, perhaps within convenience sampling,

but 18-23 year old students might share far different humor than the rest of the

population. Nonetheless, humorous appeals are important to be studied due to their

prevalence and the circumstances under which they are persuasive. In the future, more
What’s So Funny?

researchers should spend time comparing various motivational appeals. Hopefully one

day they might reach a consensus on what’s so funny.

What’s So Funny?


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