The Effectiveness of Humor in Persuasion”
Emotions (including those described as being full of humor) can play a huge role in the issue of persuasion. Emotions work together with the way we think about a specific issue or situation. Some forms of persuasion techniques have been used in things such as advertising, pubic campaigns, and in many political messages. The actual message itself is important since one message can bring about varying levels of emotion for different people.
Humor is not only important in human relationships, such as in easing tension and avoiding the escalation of conflict, but it is also said to be medicine for the soul. (Seiter & Gass, 2004). There are differing opinions, however, regarding the effectiveness of humor in persuasion. When is it appropriate to use humor in marketing, for example? Are certain types of humor off limits in public speeches designed to persuade? Is it possible for humor to cross the ethical lines in business and advertising? What are the risks involved in using humor, especially in cross-cultural communication? These are serious questions that need to be addressed in the twenty-first century, especially with the world getting smaller and international relations becoming more challenging.
The purpose of this paper is to detail the effectiveness of humor in persuasion, including the identification of risks involved. Classes have been taught, research conducted, and articles written on the appropriateness and effectiveness of humor in persuasion. The issue becomes personal, however, when someone struggles with an introduction to a speech and finds that the introduction is offensive to someone from a different ethnic background. One public speaker reports, for example, that when he told a joke at the beginning of a persuasive speech, the whole thing backfired. A member of the audience got up and walked out before the speaker could explain his rationale for the joke. He intended to use the joke not just to “hook” the audience, but also to illustrate how easily persons from various ethnic backgrounds could be offended and why it is important for concerned citizens to be culturally sensitive. Before he could make his point, however, the speaker had defeated his own purpose and “shot himself in the foot.”
On another occasion, an American educator was preparing to travel to India and deliver a persuasive speech at a conference. He was advised not only to avoid using colloquialisms and guard against gesturing with his left hand, but also to refrain from using humor of any type. He was told that colloquialisms would not be understood, public gestures with the left hand are offensive in that part of India, and humor runs the risk of alienating as well as confusing the audience. When he returned to the States, he reported that he was extremely glad he had followed that advice. Indian officials stated that he had managed to avoid the pitfalls encountered by most American speakers.
The question of effectiveness of humor in persuasion, however, goes far beyond cross-cultural sensitivity. There are questions about the types of humor to be used, how much effort in humor is justified, and what strengths of arguments are best supported. Two recent articles in journals of psychology have addressed a number of these issues.
In their article on humor in print advertising, Cline and Kellaris contend that, while humor is often used in advertising, the results are mixed. They conducted a laboratory experiment with print advertisements in order to learn which kinds of humor work best with which kinds of arguments. They concluded that, “Humorous ads engender more positive attitudes when they employ weaker arguments and less positive attitudes when they use stronger arguments.” (Cline & Kellaris, 1999, p. 69).
Cline and Kellaris report a number of findings that support the use of humor in advertising. A survey of successful American advertisers revealed that 94% believed that humor was effective in gaining attention and that 38% felt that humor increased comprehension. In addition, 62% of consumers who were surveyed indicated that humorous ads were more influential. While not all studies provide the same results, it is clear that humor is a factor in persuasion. Therefore, the question is not “if” humor is effective in persuasion, but “when” it is effective. Evidence supports the claim that, “Humor is an effective communication technique for a wide range of products and channels.” (Cline & Kellaris, 1999, p. 69).
The main purpose of the research by Cline and Kellaris was to discover the interrelationship between the use of humor in advertising and the strengths of the arguments employed. While they concluded that more research is needed, there did seem to be a correlation, especially when the humor is relevant. Humor is more effective in print advertising when the argument for a product is weaker and less compelling. It is less effective when the argument is stronger and more overwhelming. Regarding risks, “When humor is present, ad claims for low-risk convenience goods should not be so compelling as to overwhelm; arguments embedded in a humorous ad may be better off playing a supporting rather than leading role.” (Cline & Kellaris, 1999, p. 74).
Jim Lyttle has written an article on the subject, titled “The Effectiveness of Humor in Persuasion: The Case of Business Ethics Training.” Lyttle used “persuasion theory to develop predictions about the effectiveness of humor.” (Lyttle, 2001, p. 206). While he is not sure how effective humor is in persuasion, and whether the time and effort in the use of humor is justified, he is convinced that humor is somewhat effective. He goes on to explore some of the ways in which humor might be effective. One way is by creating positive affect or emotion. “According to persuasion theory, people who are in a good mood are less likely to disagree with a persuasive message and more likely to rely on heuristic/peripheral cues. Humor has been shown to produce such positive affect. Therefore, he predicted that “the use of any humor would increase the effectiveness of a persuasive message.” (Lyttle, 2001, p. 207).
Another way in which humor might be effective is by increasing liking for the source. A third way is by distracting from too much thought about counterarguments. A fourth way is by increasing trust in the source or the speaker. Lyttle concluded that educators, advertisers, and politicians who want to use humor in persuasion should consider that self-effacing humor may be the most effective of all types of humor.
Understanding persuasion as “an intentional effort at influencing another’s mental state through communication,” and assuming that mental state includes attitude, one persuasion theory that is commonly accepted is the “elaboration likelihood model.” In this theory, “receivers assess persuasive messages differently depending on their involvement with the issue.” (Lyttle, 2001, p. 207). What humor does is to help the audience or the receivers become emotionally involved with both the issue and the communicator. That may be why the world’s best communicators and leaders always used humor. If persuasion is the goal, therefore, appropriate humor becomes increasingly important.