Humour in Advertising
1. Humour is generally used to evoke the recipients’ attention
Due to the fact that many markets are rather saturated today, many commercials aim rather at the recipients’ emotional attention than at presenting a product’s features and advantages. In order to appeal emotionally to the viewer/reader, ads use different strategies. Humour provides one strategy with which an advertiser may evoke positive feelings. These positive feelings can potentially lead to cognitive processes that motivate the recipient to buy the presented product. Considering the fact that involvement during commercial breaks is generally rather low, humour may be an appropriate means to catch the recipient’s attention.
In order to be able to work with the term “humour”, it needs to be defined. The word itself originates in Latin, meaning “fluid”; it refers to antique medicine which believed that human tempers were made up different mixings of bodily fluids (“humores”). Since the 18th century the term is used in the way we use it today. Humour, though, is something that goes beyond the “simply funny” things in life. At the moment, there is no consistent scientific definition of humour. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines humour as a “form of communication in which a complex, mental stimulus illuminates, or amuses, or elicits the reflex of laughter”. It is, though, not just a one-dimensional phenomenon but has rather many facets which have to be differentiated, e.g. comic wit, sentimental humour, satire, sentimental comedy and comedy (Speck 1990).
This rather large amount of terms standing in context with humour already indicates that there cannot be one single definition but rather a whole field concerned with this topic. Semantically, Attardo (1994) has built up this field in the following way:
Looking at this variety of concepts, it should not be too surprising that there is little consensus about the effects of humorous ads. This is based on individual predispositions – one person might find a commercial extremely amusing while another rejects it. However, that depends, among others, on social and psychological factors: How has a person been socialized?
2. There are several theories about the effect of ad humour on the recipient:
a. Incongruity Resolution Theory
McGhee (1979) defines incongruity as “the relationships between components of an object, event, idea, social expectation and so forth. When the arrangement of the constituent element of an event is incompatible with the normal or expected pattern, the event is perceived as incongruous.” The theory is presented as “essentialist” because it tries to provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for a phenomenon to occur, in order to define the essence of the phenomenon.
The approach is based on the assumption that the crucial element in a humorous situation/ad is a kind of incongruity which surprises the recipient. While she expects some certain features (based on earlier experiences with similar situations), the ad evokes a situation that does not comply with the recipient’s expectations. However, in order to be humorous, the situational context must be safe and non-threatening.
When the recipient detects an incongruence, she has to start interpreting the situation. The interpretation consists of several steps. The first step represents an obvious meaning which, however, would not make much sense in this particular context. Only by providing encyclopaedic knowledge or information given earlier in the ad, she can resolve the situation and thus recognize it as humorous. The incongruity often appears in combination with a pun or a metaphor (see 3 a/b). Incongruity humour is also called “Ah-ha humour” (Behrens/Großerohde 1999) as the enjoyment comes along with intellectual pleasure, having solved a small challenge.
b. Superiority/Disparagement Theory
Whereas the Incongruity...
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