Asymmetric consumer responses to humor
Mayer, James Mark
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The use of humor in consumer communication is on the rise. However, research examining the efficacy of humor in advertising has been inconsistent. Both in the psychology and marketing literatures, scholars have stressed the need for a contingency-based approach in understanding humor. This dissertation therefore adopts a strong contextual approach to humor, presenting two essays that explore how humor processes and humor content may interact with consumer individual and biological differences. In my first essay, I explore the link between a consumer's underlying motivation to engage in cognitive activity (Need for Cognition, or NFC) and the efficacy of different humor processes. An unresolved theoretical disagreement in the extant literature is whether NFC interacts with humor (with low-NFC consumers allowing this peripheral cue to influence resulting attitudes, but high-NFC consumers immune to this influence) or if humor has a more universal positive attitudinal effect regardless of cognitive motivation. I attempt to explicate this relationship further, finding that while a certain humor process (incongruity-resolution) does indeed interact with NFC, another humor process (disparagement) effectively erases these processing-based differences. In the second essay I examine a core humor content type (sexual humor) that has heretofore gone unresearched in a consumer-based setting, despite its prevalence in modern advertising. In this essay, I demonstrate that the efficacy of sexual humor in advertising is more complicated than the conventional wisdom of “works for males, but not for females." The findings suggest that males and females tend not to exhibit significant differences in sexual humor evaluation (how funny is this?) but that advertising utilizing sexual humor is more likely (less likely) to generate positive attitudes (do I like this advertisement / brand?) when a masculine (feminine) brand is communicating with male (female) consumers, especially in product categories that are incongruous with sexual themes. However, brand gender differences and the resultant consumer attitudinal differences can be eliminated through the use of a gender-atypical brand personality. Taken together, the results show that the mere presence of sexual humor does not drive gender-based differences in advertising response; rather, it is the fit of such humor with brand personality.