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Will using humor against your opponent increase or lessen your ads impact?

What’s the difference between a magician and a politician?
A magician returns your watch at the end of their performance.

In the above joke, we’re clearly making a bit of a complaint about politicians, and how their theives.   So here’s the question:

Was the point more effective or less effective because it was made in a humorous manner?

Political humor, like humor in all advertising, seems to be everywhere – and for good reasons:  There are plenty of studies that show that humorous ads get more attention and are more easily remembered. (Gulas and Weinberger 2006; Madden and Weinberger 1982 Schmidt 1994, 2004).  Recent research by students at Pacific Union College showed that humorous ads significantly increased the likability of the candidate (Holly Batchelder, Juan Hidalgo 3rd, Samuel Martinez, Christopher Min, Maurice Pandjaitan, and Charlene Bainum.) Importantly – as they noted, research has show this actually translates to higher favorability ratings (Strick 2012).

In a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research, the positive aspects of humor are listed by A. Peter McGraw, Caleb Warren, and Cristina Kan.

“A good sense of humor is considered a highly desirable trait. Funny people are ascribed a wide range of positive characteristics, including intelligence, friendliness, imagination, charm, and emotional stability (Martin 2007; Sprecher and Regan 2002). Being humorous is also instrumentally beneficial. People attend to, remember, and are entertained by humorous stimuli (Madden and Weinberger 1982; Schindler and Bickart 2012; Schmidt 1994, 2002). People are inclined to attend social events that feature humorous invitations (Scott, Klein, and Bryant 1990) and are more likely to share advertisements, videos, and news stories that elicit positive responses, especially humorous ones (Berger and Milkman 2012; Berger 2013). Humor even enhances the liking of ads, which people otherwise tend to find annoying (Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000; Eisend 2009).”

Reading that list – it would be easy for some to make the mistake of defaulting to humor. But is that really a good idea?

You think I’m funny?  Am I here to amuse you?

McGraw and his collaboriators’ study focused not simply on humor – but humorous complaining.  In particular – does complaining in a humorous way have impact on the perceived severity of the complaint and the degree to which audiences react in response to the complaint.

As it turns out – there’s a cost to complaining humorously that advertisers – and, in our opinion, political advertisers, should seriously contemplate. (Pun intended.)

One aspect of this cost involves something called the benign violation theory – which postulates that in order for a humorous complaint to be funny – it has to be both wrong and okay.  In other words, the very fact that the advertiser is making a joke out of the complaint signals that the offense being complained about isn’t so bad that it can’t possibly be funny.  In fact, studies have shown that most people only find something funny if the violation isn’t considered serious. (Eastman 1936; Gervais and Wilson 2005)

The study verified that the benign violation theory kicks in and mitigates the seriousness of complaints. Subjects in their study found humorous complaints less serious than non humorous complaints about the same violations.

Perhaps more importantly, people placed a lower priority on addressing a humorous complaint vs a non-humorous complaint. The authors noted “Humor hinders people who complain in order to receive redress or compensation. By signaling htat the complaint is playful or nonserious, being humorous reduces the perceived need to offer the complainer redress… Humorous complaints were less effective at attracting sympathy from respondents.”

On the other hand – humorous complainers were more likely to get likes and comments.

PsyPology’s analysis:

Does it make sense to humorously attack or complain about your opponent in your ads?   The answer has more to do with the goals you have.

The research above would suggest that if your goals are to tear down your opponent, drawing attention to a flaw or transgression of theirs, then humor might weaken your impact.  By making light of it – you’re also saying, hey – it’s bad, but not that bad.

If you’re asking people to reject your opponent – McGraw, et. al.’s study suggests that the actions of your audience could be muted or suppressed by the fact you chose humor.

On the other hand, the use of humor in the ad might lead it to getting shared more and bolster or increase the voter’s good feelings about your candidate.  It might be better remembered for being humorous.

It’s clearly a trade, and we’d recommend some examination of the goals of the ad before deciding on a humorous or non-humorous approach.  If your main goal is to take the wind out of their sails, you might need to keep it dark and foreboding.

Finally – though this was not a focus of the studies – it’s worth mentioning two things you should consider prior to choosing a humorous approach:

  1. Will the ad be on so long that people get tired of the joke?  Is it something that will still be funny on the second, third, or tenth viewing?
  2. Are you sure you and/or your candidate and/or your consultants have the capacity for humor?  Everyone’s a comedian, sure… but not all comedians are actually funny.
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About the Author

Brian Franklin
Brian Franklin

PsyPology™ Founder and Editor


Brian Franklin is President of Impact Politics and founder/editor of PsyPology™ – political consulting’s first blog providing psychology intel specifically for campaign operatives. Brian has provided marketing strategy, creative direction, language development, and writing services to over a hundred political campaigns, organizations, agencies, and corporations. He has led Impact Politics’ work for numerous federal, state, county candidate, ballot initiative, public advocacy, and non-profit campaigns, as well as ad development and online media strategy for  international advocacy campaigns.


Brian is a Board Member of the American the American Association of Political Consultants and co-Chair of their Technology Committee. He is the author of a recent feature article in Campaigns and Elections magazine, “The Slow Boom of Campaign Technology.” In addition to his leadership role in the American Association of Political Consultants, Brian is also a member of the International Association of Political Consultants, Society for Consumer Psychology, Behavioral Science and Policy Association, and the International Society of Political Psychology.


Brian’s work has earned prestigious national awards, such as the Pollie Awards for Best Overall Internet Campaign, Best Overall Campaign Use of Negative Contrast, Best Use of Facebook Advertising, Best Use of Search Engine Advertising, Best Use of Humor in an Online Ad, Best Online Ads, and more. Brian has also won a Campaigns and Elections Reed Award for Best Online Targeting.


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