Adwatch: Humour in Advertising

Adwatch | Humour in advertising


Making people laugh is an age old trick in the persuasion book. Your product’s audience most likely enjoy being entertained instead of pitched so appealing to them using humour can lead to further engagement if it’s done right.

According to a Journal of Marketing study that examined multinational effects of humour on advertising, the major conclusion was that ‘humour is more likely to enhance recall, evaluation, and purchase intention when the humorous message coincides with ad objectives, is well-integrated with those objectives, and is viewed as appropriate for the product category. Under such circumstances, humorous advertising is more likely to secure audience attention, increase memorability, overcome sales resistance, and enhance message persuasiveness.’ The study was conducted in the 1990s but still rings true today.

MillwardBrown reports that around half of all ads globally make use of humour in some way and also found that ads with humour tend to be more impactful overall. [1]

Half of ads globally use humour graphHumour Statistics

Something else to keep in mind according MillwardBrown’s research, is that while much advertising was seen as equally funny by both sexes, some humour may be perceived differently by men and women. This is especially true of scatological, violent, or sexist humour. In one ad that was tested, the humour was based on body parts being pulled off, men found it distinctive, involving, and interesting, whereas women considered it disturbing, unpleasant, and irritating.

Humour in the context of the AANA Code of Ethics

Ad Standards takes into account all aspects of an ad when a complaint is raised and that includes the use of humour. In past decision Ad Standards has recognised the importance of humour in advertising by dismissing complaints against ads that were obviously using parody or satire, for example, to convey a message.

The Ad Standards Community Panel looks at complained about ads through the lens of prevailing community standards which will differ in relation to the restrictions within the categories of violence, language, nudity, health and safety and portrayal of people. Combining humour with nudity in ads for example, is often considered by the Panel as more likely to meet community standards.

Some recent decisions by the Panel highlights how Ad Standards considers the use of humour in ads.

Tasmanian Bakeries

Tasmanian bakeries ad with men at the beach with pie


Issue:    Sex/sexuality/nudity; Language Inappropriate language


This TV ad for National Pies features three men surfing. One of the men is seen pulling his wetsuit down in the carpark as his friends come around the corner while a voice over says  “Surfing our cold waters down here can be bloody magical, except when the carpark flashing of butts is worsened by seeing your best mate’s nuts. Forget it ever happened and stick a pie in National Pie hole. It’s not just premium ingredients, our pies are made with heart and with soul, because what goes in the gap on your face between your nose and your chin is the pie for your National Pie hole”.

Although the man’s buttock was visible this was not the focus of the ad, and the scene was very brief. The Panel considered that there was no overt nudity at a level that most members of the community would find confronting or unacceptable. In addition, the Panel considered the use of language in the ad and referred to the Practice Note which states that: “Words and phrases which are innocuous and in widespread and common use in the Australian vernacular are permitted (provided they are used in a manner consistent with their colloquial usage, for example with gentle humour, and not used in a demeaning or aggressive manner)”. The Panel considered that the word “nuts” would be considered by most members of the community to be mild and part of the accepted vernacular. Read the full report here.

Sultana Bran

Sultana Bran box next to a fish bowl


Issue:    Discrimination or Vilification Sexual preference


In a TV ad for the cereal, Sultana Bran, the scene opens on a breakfast table setting with a goldfish bowl on the side next to a box of Sultana Bran. A father and daughter are eating the Bran when the daughter asks if goldfish have a 3 second memory and her father answers “that’s what they say”. The goldfish swims around the bowl past the Sultana Bran box three times, each time repeating the statement it sees on the box, “Sultana Bran’s got more fibre than two slices of wholemeal toast”, with increasing incredulity.

A complainant to Ad Standards stated that the goldfish was given a “camp” voice which “perpetuated the stereotypical characteristics of gay males”.  In its response, the Community Panel noted that the goldfish does speak in what most members of the community would describe as a ‘camp’ voice but considered that the goldfish is not sexualised and its gender is not clear. The Panel acknowledged that a camp voice is often associated with gay men but considered that in the context of a humorous scenario of a goldfish forgetting what it has just said and repeating itself, the depiction of a talking fish with no identifiable gender, is not negative or demeaning to any person. Read the full report here.

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