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Don't make me laugh!

Orrin Pollard, our Executive Creative Director, reflects on the power of humour to inspire behaviour change

As we reach another year of Comic Relief (a more than worthwhile UK fundraising initiative), I feel compelled to investigate the power of humour in inspiring behaviour change.

When you ask anyone remotely interested in communications to recall an ad that had them hooked, more often than not they will recall one that made them laugh or made them smile. But if you dig a little deeper and ask them if it led to a change in opinion, encouraged them to behave differently, or indeed to buy into the brand, the answers aren’t always positive.

Funny adverts make us feel good – but do we remember why?

Humour creates positive feelings. Repeated pairing of a brand with humour can build positive associations which instigate spontaneous brand choices (1). In the same vein, humour can also help to prevent negative brand associations being developed. However, by focusing on the funny might we neglect the actual message?

In a study by Skalski et al., participants were shown one of two public service announcements about alcohol, one was humorous and the other was non-humorous (2). Positive emotions towards the humorous film was associated with a higher perceived credibility; however, this was associated with a poorer recollection of the persuasive message.

Funny adverts mitigate our fear – but by too much?

Fear is often used to influence our behaviour, including to discourage smoking, promote sunscreen use, or encourage safe driving; however, instilling fear doesn’t always lead to behaviour change. High levels of fear arousal can prompt a defensive response in an audience, reducing the effectiveness of a communication (3). In other words, we ignore or reject threatening information because we find it too difficult or frightening to deal with.

However, by incorporating an element of humour, the effectiveness of a communication can be increased. In effect, humour counteracts the audience’s defensive fear response.

The classic Lynx Antifur Ad is one example of getting the balance right:  

Yet, humour can also trivialise the seriousness of a message, leading to inaction. For example, viewers of humorous entertainment narratives about pregnancy report greater intentions to engage in unprotected sex than when pregnancy was presented in a more serious tone (4).

Striking the right balance

When used at the right time, humour can be a powerful ally for the right brand. Understandably, humour is not appropriate in all contexts. It depends on the topic and the level of acceptable risk for each individual and audience. For example, low involvement audiences (where the risk is not felt particularly relevant to them) often rate humourous ads more positively than non-humourous ads (5). The converse is true for high-involvement audiences.

Another consideration is whether you want to generate awareness or inspire a specific action. Getting the ‘humour balance’ right is critical when an action is required.

Comic Relief have it spot on. By using top quality comedy as the vehicle to achieving their objective they can deliver emotional pleas and serious messaging to a captive and engaged audience. This encourages fundraising participation and ultimately changes behaviour.

At Hamell, we believe that when you have a clear understanding of behaviour, good things happen. We use behavioural insights to develop engaging and effective health care communications, striving to obtain the best outcomes for consumers and patients.

For more information about our approach and to see what we could do for you, contact me at or visit

Orrin Pollard, Executive Creative Director at Hamell

1 Strick, M., Holland, R. W., van Baaren, R. B., van Knippenberg, A. & Dijksterhuis, A. (2013). Humour in advertising: An associative processing model. European Review Of Social Psychology, 24 (1)
2 Skalski, P., Tamborini, R., Glazer, E. & Smith, S. (2009). Effects of Humor on Presence and Recall of Persuasive Messages. Communication Quarterly, 57(2)
3 Mukherjee, A. and Dubé, L. (2012). Mixing emotions: The use of humor in fear advertising. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 11
4 Moyer-Gusé, E., Mahood, C. & Brookes, S. (2011). Entertainment-Education in the Context of Humor: Effects on Safer Sex Intentions and Risk Perceptions. Health Communication, 26(8)
5 Yoon, H. J. & Tinkham, S. F. (2013). Humorous Threat Persuasion in Advertising: The Effects of Humor, Threat Intensity, and Issue Involvement. Journal Of Advertising, 42(1)            

24th March 2017