In tracking we have seen situations where humorous TV ads worked very effectively for over a year without showing signs of wear-out. In one case, for example, the ad was on air for two years before showing any signs of wearing out. The advertiser and the ad agency would have pulled the ad off air 18 months earlier but for the clear evidence coming from the tracking data.
Why do such contradictory results exist? One clue is in the social dimension. Laughter and humor are contagious--that's why they put laughter tracks in comedy shows. When we watch a funny ad our reactions are likely to be different depending on whether we are viewing it alone or with others. Ads that are viewed by audiences that typically consist of just one person have less chance of being seen as funny. Studies are fairly consistent in showing that people laugh more if they are with other people, and the more people the more they laugh. 15
Two leading researchers suggest that this is why we get contradictory findings on the wear-out of humor. As they put it:
. . .some [ads] seem to get better, as anticipation of what will be presented evokes an anticipatory humorous response. If, in fact, a listener or viewer laughs because others do or have, . . . wearout of humor may be postponed . . .certain television commercials seem to become 'funnier' over time as their punch-lines enter the language of popular culture and are repeated by professional comedians, as well as the general public. 16
This exposes the fact that humor not only helps an ad break through and get attention but it may also succeed in making the ad itself a point of discussion and attention of the social group. Quiz shows like Millionaire and Wheel of Fortune owe a considerable amount of their success to this. Unlike most other TV programs they stimulate participation and discussion between members of the living-room audience ('I got that one right.' 'Wow . . . how did you know that?' 'I know the answer to this one!' etc).
This is not just a case of gaining greater attention. It takes on a significance and a level of enjoyment that comes about by the ad emerging from the TV set to become the focus of a conversational interaction ('Oh, look . . . here comes that great ad again! Doesn't that just break you up? I love that ad').
Humor remains one of the least understood elements in advertising--indeed, one of the least understood sides of life. We have a lot to learn yet about