To Humor or Not to Humor?

Humor. It’s a tactic that’s been used to great success in business-to-consumer advertising for decades. In fact, of the 15 campaigns Ad Age named the best of the 21st century, the majority employed humor in some form.1

Yet, despite the fact that laughter is a proven tool for grabbing and holding audience attention, comedy is rarely found in business-to-business marketing. Why? Most B-to-B marketers are either worried their joke will fall flat or concerned it could damage their brand.2

To find out if these fears are warranted — and determine whether brands that eschew humor are missing out on a reliable engine for driving targeted behaviors — gyro teamed up with Research Now. Our three-phase study found that humor can not only raise awareness and brand favorability, but it can also spur implicit understanding and even lead to actions including purchase consideration.3

Once B-to-B marketers are convinced that humor can be a valuable instrument, however, two important questions remain. Which business goals are best suited to humor, and how can marketers create campaigns that tickle the audience’s funny bone?

LOLs Help Achieve Marketing #Goals

Forty years of research on humor in B-to-C advertising have proven that comedic campaigns drive higher levels of attention4 and combat boredom (which essentially equals ad failure).5 This finding makes sense intuitively, and is likely why 91 percent of the B-to-B decision-makers we surveyed reported believing humorous ads could attract attention and 86 percent said they could reinforce brand recognition.6

The real question is, can humor do more?

Most of our survey respondents were skeptical that a playful campaign could actually drive B-to-B purchase decisions. Instead, they said it was best suited to objectives at the top of the typical purchase funnel, such as raising brand awareness and helping a brand’s message stand out from the competition. In fact, only 11 percent reported believing humor was best suited to generating demand or sales.7

However, when we conducted live in-market testing of a humorous ad against a more conventional control, we found that the humorous ad was the clear winner, not only for achieving top-of-funnel objectives but also for driving brand actions. It was more effective at increasing purchase consideration and brand website visits, as well as inspiring discussion of the brand and online search.8

These findings demonstrate that humor is a device worth considering for a full range of marketing objectives throughout the entire buyer journey.

Making Humor Work for Your Brand

When it comes to humor in advertising, there is a spectrum of responses a campaign can be designed to trigger. Some ads may cause the audience to smile on the inside, whereas others may make them LOL uncontrollably. Each type of humor can be effective.

When putting humor to work for your brand, it’s important to remember the objectives of the campaign. For example, if the goal is to make your audience perceive your brand as likable, approachable and relatable, simply using a friendly tone of voice in communications and opting for more casual, conversational language can go a long way toward achieving that objective. On the other hand, if differentiating yourself from the competition is a top priority, creating a laugh-out-loud funny campaign may be an effective way to set your brand apart.

Whatever type of humor you employ, remember to make sure it aligns to your brand identity and your marketing goals. Remaining true to your brand’s voice can help a humorous campaign come across as authentic. That way, audiences are sure to perceive it as a breath of fresh air, rather than a non sequitur.

We Take Humor in B-to-B Seriously

The humor in B-to-B study conducted by Research Now and gyro found that humor can be extremely effective in achieving a range of marketing objectives, from attracting attention and boosting brand recognition to driving implicit understanding and brand actions, including purchase consideration.

Although many B-to-B marketers balk when faced with the opportunity to employ humor in advertising, the research shows that the benefits often substantially outweigh the risks. What’s more, sticking to conventional tactics — such as focusing exclusively on features and benefits — comes with its own set of liabilities, as brands that fail to stand out from the “blah-to-blah” landscape risk being overlooked.

To learn more about our landmark three-phase study and the in-depth insights we gleaned, download the research report, “The Business Case for Humor in B-to-B.”


2Research Now and gyro, Humor in B-to-B study, phase 1 qualitative research.

3Research Now and gyro, Humor in B-to-B study, phase 3, in-market testing.

4Calvin P. Duncan, James E. Nelson, and Nancy T. Frontczak (1984), “The Effect of Humor on Advertising Comprehension,” Advances in Consumer Research 11: 432–437, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

5Paul Surgi Speck, “On Humor and Humor in Advertising,” A Dissertation in Business Administration Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University, December 1987.

6Research Now and gyro, Humor in B-to-B study, phase 3, in-market testing.