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Humour in Advertising ; Do laughs drive sales?

Incidence of humour in advertising

In North America, over half of adverts are considered ‘funny’ or ‘light-hearted’(48%) and the remainder have ‘no intended humour’. However in Asia Pacific only a third are considered humourous, with other continents ranging between (1). So does that mean you should use humour in advertising, or that humour always increases sales? We investigate how to spend your ad budget wisely!

humour in advertising
Incidence of humour in advertising

Funnier ads are more memorable

According to Nielsen’s Trust in Advertising survey humour resonates more than any other type of content (2).  And according to Millward Brown’s advertising awareness tracker, the more humourous the ad, the more impactful it is likely to be i.e. the more likely the ad is to be recalled (1).

Impact of humourous advertising
Impact of humourous advertising

This is because humour is disarming, involving – it lowers barriers to engagement. To draw an analogy with human inter-relationships, we’re generally more attracted to ‘funny’ people! So it may be unsurprising that humour is used in almost half of the world’s advertising.

Codes for humour in advertising differ by region

The relative impact of humour differs by region of the world. Humour in advertising has much higher impact in North America and Europe than in Africa/Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. The North American and European regions also have the highest incidence of funny ads which suggest these factors are related. These Western regions also have the most developed economies (larger gross domestic product/capita) and much higher expenditures on advertising than other areas (3). The advertising industries are equally larger and more developed – having spurred, and grown to respond to, increasingly competitive markets. Conversely, consumers are less exposed to advertising in less developed markets. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that ads have a lesser impact because there is a lesser need for more ‘sophisticated’ messages and/or consumers are less responsive to ‘humourous’ messages .

Cultural differences also have a bearing. In less open societies, for example in parts of Asia and the Middle East countries ‘blue’ humour (references to sex, body parts) are taboo (4). Sarcasm is also not appreciated in China and irony (feigned ignorance) appears peculiarly British.

Conversely some humour codes appear universally appealing. For example, slapstick (childish humour), such as ‘pie in the face’ gags as ‘performed’ by clowns. Poking fun at minorities appears universal; Pommies (the English) in Australia, the Irish (in England), the Belgians (in France), the Spanish (the Portuguese), the Poles (the USA) and the Germans (Poland). Though in our UK experience, there is an increasing fine-line between poking fun and xenophobia (a reflection of an increasingly diverse and politically correct society).

Humour doesn’t always drive brand engagement

While humourous ads are more impactful, they are slightly less persuasive (1). Humourous ads are seen as less credible and relevant. There is a fine line between distracting and engaging with humour – the former risks the brand message being overlooked, and the credibility and relevance of the message being impeded. Further, once a joke is made and understood, repetition risks boring or annoying. Nevertheless the difference is small which suggests there are many humourous ads which are persuasive. Here are four ads from which made us smile and thus help us draw insights on what works.

Heineken (Heineken) (UK)

Heineken is one of the world’s most popular lagers. Created by CDP, their ‘refreshes the parts’ campaign was one of the longest running in advertising history (30 years).

Does this ad work?

The campaign idea and message reflects the most universally appealing benefit in the category – ‘refreshment’. Strong secondary benefits – social desirability and cleverness; antidotes to the ‘down-trodden’ married male stereotype. This ad ‘refreshes the pets’; it twists the original strapline and parodies the Dulux Paints’ campaign – this is also evidence that the long running joke was wearing thin. The campaign was therefore dropped in 2005.

Old Spice (Procter and Gamble)(Global)

Old Spice is a men’s fragrance. When acquired by P&G in the mid 1980s it had a slightly faded image.

Does this advert work?

We’re unsure of the extent to which this drives sales and question how aspirational this ad is to men! We suspect there is more to this ad than meets the eye! The target is more likely to be females who wish to buy a gift/make a statement to their partner rather than males.
The message is make your man a dream man (dream he is a real man, make a joke to your man that he isn’t a real man and express a desire for a real man…). This ad has spawned a significant number of spoofs and is a huge social media talking point. (UK) is an insurance comparison site competing in a market where the cost per click for ‘insurance’ terms is very high.

Does this ad work?

This ad campaign (VCCP) has driven significant online traffic directly to two websites. It has also fuelled a burgeoning industry of meerkat toys (Aleksandr Orlov and his family). In effect it has also injected a stand-out personality in an otherwise ‘low interest’ and price driven category. The benefit of offering cheap car insurance with a distinctive personality is appealing and engaging. The joke is that ‘compare the market’ sounds like ‘compare the meerkat’ in Russian. Though having researched this ad in Russia, the humour only works in the UK!

Head and Shoulders Anti-Hair Loss Shampoo (Procter and Gamble)(UK, US)

Head and Shoulders Anti-Hair Loss Shampoo is a relatively new product (2009) that’s available in the UK and US.

Does this advert work?

First up, we’re not sure whether the ad drives sales but it is hilarious. Since the ad was created (Saatchi and Saatchi), the product appears to have been repositioned from anti-hair loss to hair endurance. The former benefit (being to avoid a negative) while the latter is clearly positive. In our experience positive benefits are more appealing than avoiding disbenefits.
While the absurdity of the idea is amusing it also impedes the relevance and credibility of the message. For example, the idea of ‘loving your hair before it leaves’ undermines the core proposition of ‘anti-hair loss’. Nevertheless this is a slightly taboo subject area, and the ‘off-the-wall’ humour and gentle tale is dramatic, disarming and engaging. This may even reduce self-consciousness and increase propensity to discuss the subject more openly.

Marketing Inspiration

1. Consider using humour in markets that are plain boring, commodity-oriented and rationally driven. Humour works in many ways to lower barriers to engagement, inject personality and increase brand stand-out.
2. Humour also needs channelling with care to ensure the brand message is clear and persuasive.
3. Humour can be both simple and complex. It is coded – so make sure you know how it works before building it into your strategy.
4. Explore and test a series of humour codes and personalities in markets where humour is highly prevalent, for example, beer (UK).
5. Not all humour travels. Most cultures have phrases that get lost in translation. So use humour with caution when developing global campaigns and at minimum allow for localisation.
6. Funny campaigns sometimes wear out quickly. Make sure your production budget is big enough to keep the idea fresh.

So what makes you smile, while also persuading? Or alternatively what doesn’t work?


(1) Millward Brown. Does Humor Make Ads More Effective? (2007) Humourous adverts are those considered ‘funny’ or ‘light-hearted’ as opposed to having ‘no intended humour’. Impact is based on Millward Brown’s Awareness Index (AI) and is calculated by looking at the rise in prompted ad awareness per 100 GRPs that is also generated above the base level factoring out “diminishing returns” i.e. that it is harder to go from 60-70% than from 20-30%.
(2) Nielsen’s survey on Trust in Advertising (Sept 2013) is based on 29,000 respondents in 58 countries.
(3) Banks, S. Cross-national analysis of advertising expenditures. Journal of Advertising Research 26 (2), 11-24 (1986)
(4) McGraw, Peter; Warner, Joel. The Humor Code – A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny (2014)

Guy is a leading UK marketing consultant with a background at major brands and in the media. He is Founder of The Marketing Directors, a successful research and marketing consultancy working with aspiring and global brands in the UK and beyond. He is co-author of The Marketing Director's Handbook with Tim Arnold.

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