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Industry Report: Why is Humour commonly used as a persuasion tool in Commodities Advertising?

Kathrina Wainstok MA, BA (Hons) Illustration, 2015


Some of the most successful advertising campaigns in history, although subject to cultural variation, employed humour as a persuasive tool. Throughout this essay, the function and effectiveness of humour in commodities advertising is explored, with particular attention to alcohol advertising. Preceded by an introductory explanation of the biological and cognitive development of humour in the human brain, this essay closely studies humorous campaigns carried out by beer leaders Guinness, Heineken, and Carlsberg across three major eras of advertising – namely, World War II, the 60s and 70s, and modern day. The importance of understanding the initial function of humour in advertising is emphasised throughout the opening chapters, as it enables a better appreciation of humour as an effective social tool. The effectiveness of humour in each campaign is evaluated especially through the following: thresholds of human sensibility; cultural understanding of and response to aesthetic influences, semiotics, and censorship; the suppression of subjective content as determined by the government, media, and other respected authorities; and physically measurable sales profits. Fundamentally, this essay demonstrates why humour is so commonly used as a persuasion tool in advertising, closely detailing its development and evolution within society over time in accordance with advertising.

Introduction: Succeeding in Business

“Early to bed, early to rise.
Never get tight, and – advertise.”
(Brandreth, G. 2013)

According to art critic Mark Wigan, advertising is “a creative and commercial field that provides more exposure” to a product or service which consumers are then persuaded to buy or use. Advertising campaigns typically highlight a particular place or time in which the product is used to establish connections with the consumer. The ancient Greeks limited trade to marketplaces as they held the belief that these transactions encouraged customers to purchase their product instead of another. As A. Boese suggested, trade “promoted antagonistic relationships… sellers had a natural motive to lie and cheat.” However in modern day, as Boese further observes, the “boundaries of our marketplaces have disappeared. Advertising is everywhere.” As such, it is important to recognise that advertising exaggerates truths in various ways to make a product or service more attractive to its consumer.

Humour is one such tool of persuasion and attraction. In many living species, males must attract females, whether through dominance or strength, to quantify their reproductive instincts successfully. In the human race, however, we have developed various other methods to attract females – one method of which is through humour. This, as Noel Carroll stated, is “distinctive of our species and no other.”

There is a chemical reaction in the brain that mimics one of attraction when we are made to laugh or find something entertaining through humour. As Carroll described, humour triggers the “reward network” in our brains based on positive reinforcement. This is “reward network” is something we have developed as a species and is taken advantage of by intelligent campaigns, as represented through successful humorous advertising. However, it is not just the attractiveness of the campaign itself that the advertisements are selling. John Berger describes this advertising through publicity images outlining its true motivation which helps one better understand its true methodology. It is in fact the envy we hold for the current consumer of the product and our hopes that once we purchase it others will envy us. We are being sold our improved richer future selves. In an extract from his book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger outlines this notion:

“It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, our lives by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.”

Berger further stated that “publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.” This notion can be applied to the effectiveness of humour within advertising. The consumer is sold an image of a future happier, more attractive, socially-successful self as a result of the product they are presented with. In a similar fashion, G. Brandeth described advertising as “the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it.”

Arifur Rahman conducted a widespread analysis of humour in contemporary advertising with a sole focus on Bangladeshi consumers. Although one can question its application through cultural variations in the modern day, Rahman discovered some important perspectives – namely, that “humorous appeal as a persuasive device is more consistent as a method,” and that “humorous ads indeed increase ad likeability and allow viewers to remember and recall a brand while purchasing products.”

As Brandreth stated, “doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing but nobody else does.” (Brandreth, 2013). Again, this highlights that campaigns not only advertise a product but also the brand behind it. The brand becomes strengthened by future campaigns, and advertising thus becomes a necessity for business to thrive.

Chapter 1: Humour, Evolution, Cognition And Criteria

“When promoting products or services, companies often use humorous advertisements. Depending on the medium, about 10-30 per cent of all advertisements include humorous elements.”

The success or failure of an advertising campaign can be quantified in a number of different ways, but ultimately has one goal: making the campaign memorable. Does the campaign persuade you to purchase the product? How accessible is the campaign in a wider context to a varied audience? These questions bring up a number of issues in terms of subjectivity.

Humour is especially subjective, and of course, subject to cultural variation. Humour is thus often only relatable to the culture it is aimed to attract. This would be a hindrance to international commodities advertising, but would, however, render significant success for a local advertising campaign. Generally, niche advertising would have greater success with societal acceptance, as it would be tailored to a local individual’s experiences.

One example of the cultural variations that humour holds can be found in a study conducted by an observer in Greenland, which noted that Greenland Inuits “traditionally resolved disputes by engaging in public contests of ridiculing each other.” If, as in Greenland, humour is a sign of dominance, it stands to reason that a humorous publication or advertising campaign would be interpreted differently in this type of society.

Brownell and Gardner observed humour as “a basic ingredient of binding in society” which “provides an effective means of communicating a wide range of ideas, feeling and opinions.” To begin to understand and explore the application of humour to advertising campaigns, one must first understand why humour is so socially important, and from whence humour originated.

It is firstly imperative to understand that the development of humour within an individual or a society can be acquired in two different ways: either through biological (evolutionary) development, or through cognitive (learned) development. Cognitive explanations for humour state that an individual learns humour through the sociological response of positive reinforcement (in this instance the reaction of laughter). The “incongruity theory” discusses a way in which humour is made to be funny in societies through cognitive reinforcement. The incongruity theory outlines that often within verbal humour there is a link between a social norm and a subjective moral order. This highlights the attractiveness of dark humour through a groups’ shared relief and shared understanding. The WWF advertisement below is amusing because we see fire fighters with a poor moral code, stopping for sale at a retailer instead of tackling the fire as social norm dictates.

The alternative biological explanation for humour in society is based on evolution. Humour uses emotion to communicate and can be stimulated by a chemical reaction. Humour in this instance is learned either innately, or through imitation and “mirror neurons” (Rizzolati, 2009). This solidifies the subconscious or conscious cause and effect of the well-known notions that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Charles Caleb Colton, 1830) and that “laughter is contagious.”

The evolutionary cultural process of laughter strengthens societal norms and creates personal links in tight communities. Examples of this are often found in satire cartoons, which are culturally biased and can be taken offensively in a vast context. One recent example of this in modern society can be seen in the Charlie Hebdo shootings that happened as a result of extremist views and offensive religious satire.

There exists, however, contradicting research which suggests that humour “distracts consumers from consciously, but not unconsciously, remembering the brand names.” Through a number of different experiments a group of psychologists tested memory retention in relation to humour. The findings showed that humour meant that an advertisement was immediately recognisable (subconsciously). However, the brand became less memorable than the humorous aspect of the advertisement. This may affect how we quantify the success or failure of an advertising campaign. On the other hand, one can argue that any memory retention of an advertising campaign merits success. Again, it is entirely subjective.

It is thus important to use these two explanations on the development of humour to explore the criteria against which advertising campaigns would be evaluated. By looking at the cognitive explanation for humour, which highlights the importance of society, one can observe important evaluative criteria including the longevity of the product or campaign – in other words, whether the product continued to sustain itself, or whether it was a temporary culturally-based success that decreased after time. (These criteria will be alluded to more in Chapters 2 and 3). Another important measurement of success is a campaign’s memorability. At present, this sense of memorability can be judged through a campaign’s online presence and social media popularity (which will be spoken about in further detail in Chapter 4). Another crucial criterion is the measure of campaigns and product success through product sales, profit, and turnover, which will be discussed in the following chapters.

Chapter 2: The Second World War

Due to the widespread variation of commodities advertising campaigns, it becomes prudent to focus on one particular commodity – for example, alcohol advertising. Alcohol is an extremely popular product in Western culture and has long used humour in its advertising campaigns to increase brand perception.

Guinness started as a small company in Dublin with one brewery in 1759. By the 1930s, Guinness had become the third largest company in the world. During the Second World War many of the economy’s commodities advertising were drastically altered due to rationing and other war-related issues. Alcohol, however, remained a booming industry. Large, well-advertised and well-known companies were able to maintain their brands, whereas smaller breweries and alcohol exports disappeared within the uncertain economic and political climate.

Guinness’ “My Goodness, My GUINNESS” campaign, illustrated by John Gilroy and published in the Daily Mail in 1929, became a popular slogan. The campaign built its initial success off this slogan, which later simplified into: “Guinness is good for you”. The humorous Guinness sea lion in the advertisement above was seen as comical. The easily recognisable animal is steeling the zookeepers Guinness and funnily running away with it forcing the zookeeper to chase after it. This claim in modern advertising practice would no longer be acceptable. Today, any statement claiming that alcohol is broadly beneficial to an individual’s health would not be permitted for a number of different reasons. The main reason would be that this is false advertising (although it is worth noting that many modern companies get around this law by deeming it as an opinion). Secondly, the Advertising Standards Authority significantly tightened in 2005. Advertisements were no longer allowed to target consumers under the age of 18 or “contain anything that is likely to appeal to them (young people) by reflecting youth culture or by linking alcohol with irresponsible behaviours, social success or sexual attractiveness.”

When looking at this advertising campaign through the lens of sensibility and censorship it is important to highlight the advertisements that were banned, or never reached press, due to a variety of reasons, including offensive content, promoting racial hatred, and controversial ideologies.

Take, for example, the use of animals in Guinness advertisements that began in 1930, starting with the sea lion in “My goodness, My Guinness”. The use of animals occurred not only because zoos had become extremely popular in Western culture, but also because a lot of people argued that some of the photos of people depicted in campaigns were unrealistically attractive or too ugly. In 1981, Gilroy stated the following:

“Everyone involved in deciding on the posters hated someone in the Guinness family for being too handsome, or too ugly. So I invented the animals, whom everyone loves and no-one can hate. Even the only human present in this series of posters – the zookeeper – is a caricature of myself, so. For Guinness, I was the only human who could give offence.”

The following advertisement (Image 3) drawn by John Gilroy, was the German version of “My Goodness, My Guinness” created prior to the intentions of dictator Adolf Hitler being truly made apparent. This advertisement was amusing because the giant blimp-sized Toucans are proudly and happily bring home Guinness to Germany.
When the German invasion of Poland forced Britain and France to declare war on Germany, the campaign was never put into print and became accessible only through the illustrator’s own private collection. This artwork, one can assume, would have fallen into the category of offensive or promoting hatred due to Hitler’s anti-humanitarian philosophies – which, ultimately, would have crippled the campaign.

An example of a politically crippled campaign can be seen later in the century, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) posed terrorists threats to Britain. The head of Guinness marketing planned to drop the harp from the Guinness logo due to its association with the revolutionary military organization. Although Guinness’s original intentions were to be more accessible to a diverse audience, its success was dictated by historical, cultural, and political situations.

The continued success of the Guinness brand is evident through its consistent profit margins and (previously) well-known campaigns; the latter is possibly more evident with older generations. The use of humour in current Guinness advertising campaigns have since spread to television advertising, and consistently create a social media buzz, which allows for reduced censorship laws. The branding of the product and logo have remained the same, making it a recognisable household name whose popularity is known globally. There are many other factors that have affected the success or failure of advertising campaigns, however humour in Guinness advertising, had played a very influential part as an effective tool for persuasion when it was applied in an appropriate context. One can argue that Gilroy’s humorous advertising illustrations lifted the company off the ground, and the subsequently well-received product meant that the company’s growth was sustained.

Chapter 3: 60s and 70s The Advertising Age

In the 60s and 70s the use of advertising and marketing products became much more apparent and transported itself to a number of different mediums. There was a greater emphasis on television advertising as television sets became more affordable. The “Heineken, Refreshes the parts other beers cannot” campaign was recognised in “excellence and best practice in advertising, benchmarking creativity” (Foster, 2015) by the Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. The humorous advertisement above showed the stylish female characters flowery hat turned into an extremely large hat covered in fruit and vegetation as a result of her Heineken, a seemingly improbable result.

Heineken’s slogan campaign ran for 30 years, finishing in 2005. The longevity of this campaign can be said to illustrate its success, as many companies, like Guinness, had to go through a re-branding period within a similar timeframe due to changing tastes. Heineken’s revenue growth, however, steadily increased from the onset of this campaign.

During the Cold War, the purpose of humour in advertising declined as a direct result of changed economic climate. There was less of a necessity for people to be exposed to humour and, by extension, humour in popular media. The substantial worldwide loss following the Second World War, and continued difficulty through the Vietnam War and Cold War, meant that the population became used to being exposed to a certain type of humour in media. The British “Grow your own” campaigns, for example, circulated predominantly during the Second World War as a result of the Blitz air raids and shipping embargo.

The purpose for humour in advertising has evolved and transformed according to cultural situations. However, the basic function of humour was and still is to build a community through shared relief and understanding. As previously discussed, humour can bring people together through a mutual reaction or interest. In more difficult societies, such as wartime Britain and America, the need for humour in everyday life increased. As Brandreth stated: “A joke’s a very serious thing.” (Brandreth, 157).

As the West struggled to rebuild their economy through reforms and five-year plans, the atrocities that occurred during the war left many people seeking elements of innocence. This can be seen within the style of illustration and the nature and subjects of the characters used in certain advertisements at the time. Take, for example, one of Heineken’s most controversial campaign illustrations targeted a younger audience. The use of Humpty Dumpty, a popular children’s book character, would certainly have attracted a much younger audience (see Image 5 below). This advertisement was humorous as it had taken a traditional storybook and nursery rhyme character that notoriously fell off a wall and no one could put him together again but Heineken seemingly can.

However these advertisements, which attracted an ambiguous range of young and old audiences, would today be inappropriate for public media outlets. However, in 2012 a new study found that “Alcohol ads that violate industry guidelines are more likely to appear in magazines popular with teen readers.” (Join Together Staff, 2012).

This observation shows that there are a number of different ways in which advertisers alter advertisements to make them more culturally and politically appropriate, whether it is changing the age of the demographic or the language used in the publication, including the presence of nationally recognizable logos or slogans. These notions are observable in the seemingly Russian publication in Image 6 (below). This is funny because, the waves off of the large clearly soviet battleship had quickly pushed the little sailors boat onto the shore, saving them time travelling back to shore.

The boat is adorned with a hammer and sickle logo. This is known to be Soviet Russia’s communist flag prior to the regime dissolution in 1991. The advertisement’s text, however, is designed to be read in English. The use of Cyrillic font reflected the Western-Soviet political climate at the time of print.

Today, Heineken still has a strong online presence, with its own website and largely positive activity on social media platforms, indicative of its popularity. The company’s profits are on a gradual but seasonally dependent increase in the present day particularly due to its consistent use of humour – although their campaigns are slightly altered in order to adhere to modern advertising and alcohol licensing laws. There are several influences that have stimulated the realisation or disappointment of advertising campaigns, however Heinekens humorous advertising had an influential role as a popular tool for persuasion in the correct context.

Chapter 4: Modern Day

As a result of the creation of social media and the easily accessible nature of the Internet, the types of advertisements we are exposed to have changed. Viral advertising is a social media based marketing technique by which unofficially censored content is released to create a careful online presence and escalate brand knowledge. The success of viral advertising relies on how often the content self-replicates via consumers across social media platforms. With ever-increasing technologies, this includes all devices that are able to connect to the Internet.

Viral marketing doesn’t limit publication. Television advertisements are also increasingly making their way online, and are being promoted through the same process, all the while adhering to traditional advertising laws. Carlsberg marketing, for example, expressed an interest in bridging the gap between publications on technology and the real world, stating: “It should be so simple for the consumer to engage that they don’t actually experience the technology.” (Schultz, 2014). This statement implies that a successful advertisement can be safely applied on all available technological platforms, and easily relatable.

In the present day, more mature humorous links to alcohol are used in commodities advertising. As previously discussed, the laws surrounding the target audience for alcohol campaigns have been made stricter to tackle England’s national problem for underage drinking. Carlsberg follows these legal criteria through their recent “Probably the best beer in the world” campaign. The advertisements show adult scenarios and feature mature actors and actresses or associating the product with mature themes, such as “pick up lines”. The advertisement below is amusing because of the juxtaposition of text, image and social norms, indicating you are a 167 years would merit a positive response in most cases as a pick up line.

Although the nature of humorous advertising has had to adapt and evolve over time, the reactions and effects of humour remain humbly successful. The longevity of Carlsberg’s campaign is yet to be determined, as it hasn’t been running for a long enough time to analyse its success in this way. Carlsberg was founded in 1847, and its logo featured an elephant and a swastika. The Carlsberg logo became culturally biased when the war broke out, and its audience began to diminish due to the controversial political implications of its branding. In the 1930s, the brand was forced to change its logo, as its swastika logo quickly became associated to Hitler and wartime Germany, and became unsavoury for its target audience. Similar to Guinness, tasteful censorship was used to re-brand the beer.

The success of Carlsberg was not a temporary one. As mentioned, brand success has been maintained and Carlsberg remains a globally recognised brand name. On the other hand, the effect of political climate is still very present in commodities sales and advertising. Carlsberg were hit by the recent crisis in Eastern Europe, with beer sales dropping in Ukraine and Russia by “6% and 7% in the second quarter due to the ‘uncertain macroenvironment’ and ‘weak economic development’”, according to Carlsberg. (Undefined, 2014). From this statement, one can infer that the effect of economic and political climate can have a much greater impact on decreasing a brand’s success than the use of humour can have to push brand success forward.

The memorability of a brand as criteria for success can be judged in a number of different ways – including its presence on the Internet. The website Design Swan listed the above advertisement (Image 8) as one of the best “Humorous Beer Advertisements” and stated that “a good beer ad will make people want to grab the beer as long as they see the ads.” (DesignSwan, 2011). It is humorous because there is an attractive woman in the bath and there are three well camouflaged individuals drinking beer on the back wall, the use of text and image illustrates this.

Social media is an important new source to retrieve popularity information from. Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram highlight the amount of followers on a profile, which can be a measurable indicator of the profile’s reputation and attractiveness. Carlsberg have a number of different profiles which are aimed at varying groups of people, according to nationality, region, or association with sports, to name a few. On Twitter, as of today, the original Carlsberg group have roughly 18,500 followers. A number of related pages such as Carlsberg UK Corp and Carlsberg Fan Squad hold approximately another 15,000 followers between them. These statistics highlight the brand’s popularity.

One of the Carlsberg Facebook pages currently holds over 14,500 likes. The Carlsberg Instagram likewise has over 4,000 followers. The previous print screen graphic (Image 7) is a good indicator of the brand’s modern advertising techniques. It is also be possible to judge the success of an individual image or campaign through the amount of “likes” and “comments” garnered. However, this method limits the platforms on which one can judge the success or failure of a campaign to very few. These platforms therefore cannot be solely used to gain a widespread consensus, and should be used alongside other statistics such as sales, local and international censorship factors, and general feedback through focus groups and the like.

Carlsberg’s “camouflage” campaign, as seen in Image 8, can be judged upon immediate observation as successful and memorable, particularly due to its use of humour. The campaign’s online presence and social media popularity is evident and overall positive. Its adherence to recent alcohol advertising legislation has meant that the campaign has had an active presence in printed publications also. Although Carlsberg’s sales have dropped by almost 5% due to the political uncertainty and economic climate in Eastern Europe, in the Western world they continue to maintain brand success in their products, sales, and ultimately, profits. These figures illustrate the effect of cultural and political situations on commodities advertising. However one can argue that a strong product and humorously associated brand can maintain profits and popularity nevertheless. A key reason for the use of humour as a persuasion tool in commodities advertising.


It is evident that many different factors can affect the success or failure of humorous commodities advertising – particularly, as has been evaluated throughout this essay, with humorous alcohol campaigns. These factors most often include political tension, changes in economic climate, and of course, the limits of cultural variation. However, humour in advertising no doubt remains a very important tool for allowing an advertising campaign to move freely between publications and online platforms, and to retain a sense of brand personality (and by extension, relatability).

To generalise and project these niche findings to other commodities advertising outside of alcohol would be problematic. Alcohol, and specifically beer, is relatively timeless. For other commodities, there is a much wider range of variable factors to consider – for example, the consumer’s general knowledge of the products prior to the advertisements, the quality of the product, and how modern or relatable the product is.

The campaigns of the three alcoholic beer companies researched and discussed throughout this essay – Guinness, Heineken, and Carlsberg, respectively – have been analysed to explain how and why humour remains a successful persuasion tool when employed cleverly and appropriately in advertising. Guinness showed the success of humorous advertising during the Second World War, through its subsequent growth into one of the world’s top three companies at the time; Heineken displayed its success for humorous advertising in a campaign stretching over 30 years, resulting in substantial profit and domestic recognition; and finally, Carlsberg displayed its obvious success across social media for its most recent campaign. Carlsberg’s online success also highlights modern day contributing factors in maintaining profit as a brand – which is the fundamental aim of every campaign.

The use of humour in advertising was initially borne out of necessity. As discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, difficult political situations and wartime economies meant that advertising needed to distract focus and provide relief from evident national distress. The use of humour brought communities together through shared interest and shared relief.

Humour is used in commodities advertising to this day to help establish positive social links to existing brands, strengthening brand campaigns and maintaining a substantial following of loyal customers. Both the online and publication platforms and subjects have changed since the birth of advertising. Ultimately, the use of humour as a tool for persuasion has come a long way, evolving alongside new cultural practices and technologies, and continues to be used with great success.


Thank you to Alistair Moir, the Archive Collections Manager at the History of Advertising Trust, for granting me access to the Archive and for assisting me on researching relevant material.

Also, I wish a massive thanks to my tutors, my family and, my friends for supporting me through the completion of this work.

Table of illustrations

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