Why Humor is So Effective in Ads

Using humor in advertising can be very effective, and is quite popular. Today, one out of every five ads uses humor — but why does it work? At SPARK Neuro, we’ve studied thousands of ads while scanning people’s brains and nervous system response and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. In this blog we share some of what we’ve found.

We’ve compiled six psychological principles that help to explain why humor works.



Physiological studies link humorous experiences to increased heart rate and enhanced skin conductance (Averill, 1969; Langevin & Day, 1972), the biological measures of excitement. Marketers have taken notice that a dose of humor can give a “dull” product some life. Add a wisecracking Gecko to your campaign, and suddenly even insurance can be attention grabbing.



According to the superiority theory of humor, we often joke to demonstrate our superiority over others (it’s why we don’t want to be “laughed at”). A little superiority-driven humor is a great way to take a crack at the competition without looking too aggressive. The classic Mac vs. PC ad campaign demonstrates this perfectly, portraying the PC as an insecure nerdy office dweller, compared to the effortlessly cool and confident Mac.



According to the relief theory of humor, humorous experiences arise from the sudden relief of tension (that’s why jokes can save the day when we’re in an awkward situation!). Public speakers know this intuitively–they often lead with a joke to lighten the mood, relieving tension to make the audience feel more relaxed.

Here’s an example of SPARK Neuro’s Emotion Graph that shows the peaks and valleys of the most uncomfortable, awkward (and yet joyous) moments in this T-Mobile ad. Watch as negative emotions (below 0) rapidly give way to positive emotions (above 0) as awkwardness and disgust are quickly reversed, producing the laughter that comes with relief.


That’s also why humor is often the perfect compliment to a sexy ad: sex sells, but it also makes us uncomfortable. Throw in a joke to give your audience relief from the tension it produces. Take for example the Mr. Clean ad from this year’s Super Bowl, which combines sex and humor into a winning combination. The below neurological Attention Graph shows very high engagement (among the highest from this year’s Super Bowl).




If one of your selling points is a little taboo, don’t say it — joke about it! It makes your audience more comfortable while still driving home the point. In this ad for Gillette’s razors for women, the pitch is, ahem, indirect – but when you get it, you not only laugh but also feel “in on the joke.”

Warning! Watch at your own risk. For those that “get” the joke, it can be a bit risque.



It’s no secret that people find ads annoying. In all likelihood, you’re reaching your audience while they’re in a state of mild agitation. Humor can mitigate that effect: humorous ads are perceived as significantly less irritating (Duncan & Nelson, 1985), suggesting that you can combat some of that ad resistance by being a little funnier.



Emotional ads are the holy grail in advertising. That’s for good reason: a wealth of research demonstrates that emotion plays a tremendous role in all of our decision-making (Damasio, 1995). Emotions are the way we create brand loyalty and trust, driving us to remember events and repeat behaviors.

Humor is an excellent example of a highly emotional experience. Although you can passively listen to a serious ad, when you’re laughing, you’re by definition feeling something.

But what are you feeling? Humor seems like a straightforwardly positive emotion–we all love to laugh, right? As it turns out, the neuroscience of humor is full of surprises. In our next post, we’ll delve into what our data reveal about detailed emotions that make up humorous experiences. The results shed new light on how and why humor works in advertising – and how to do it better.

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