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Why is disparaging humour so powerful?

You probably don’t usually give much thought to why some things make you laugh uncontrollably, while others just leave you groaning or rolling your eyes.

It’s hard to explain, for example, why the kooky Troy on Married at First Sight brings some to tears of laughter. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact he talks a very big game, while struggling with some of life’s simplest questions such as: what’s the difference between butter and cheese?

Or why while one friend chuckles at virtually everything the satirical online newspaper The Betoota Advocate writes, another friend finds it utterly boring and ‘unoriginal’.

But like trying to determine why someone is more of an introvert or extrovert, there must be some kind of science to humour – a reason that so many people found decades of Australia’s Funniest Home Videos hilarious while the rest of us couldn’t wait to change the channel.

Advertising and humour

Dr Josh Newton, a senior lecturer in the Department of Marketing at Deakin Business School, has some answers. He co-wrote a study exploring how advertisers use disparaging humour to make potential customers feel more powerful – and ultimately open their wallets.

The research had its beginnings when Dr Newton was considering making an ad encouraging people to donate their organs.

‘I was really curious about finding ways or techniques of trying to encourage people who may have been a little bit concerned about the concept of organ donation, about death, to actually make them a little more likely to register to become an organ donor,’ he says.

While the organ donation advertisement didn’t eventuate, Dr Newton became interested in the theories underpinning humour in advertising – particularly the effects of disparaging humour, such as the old ‘slipping on a banana peel’ set-up.

Why is disparaging humour so powerful?

He and his co-authors found that a preference for certain types of humour is influenced by a wide range of factors including how powerful – or powerless – we are feeling at that moment.

Someone who’s feeling dissatisfied with their lot in life, for example, is swayed by a particular type of commercial, and canny advertisers know it.

‘A person who’s feeling powerless, they’re going to be looking for situations where they can feel more powerful,’ Dr Newton says.

‘With disparaging humour you see someone slip on a banana peel, you see all these things where people make idiots of themselves and are made to look silly and stupid. We look at that and we sort of think, “oh my golly, I’m so glad I’m not that particular person” and as a result we start to feel more powerful from that.’

In the context of advertising, Dr Newton says disparaging humour is more likely to appeal to those who feel somewhat powerless in their life, than those content with factors such as their job, their social life or general feelings of status.

‘People who are feeling powerless are going to be having a more favourable attitude towards our brand, and they might be more likely to recall the claims we were actually making through that ad as well,’ he says.

‘The thing is that if we were seen to laugh or to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others people would probably go “oh what a douchebag, you’re such a horrible person,”’ Dr Newton says.

He believes that to conveniently get around that we often misattribute the basis for our superior feelings to the humour of the particular event – rather than the fact we might just feel better than the poor fool in it.

But why do we all find different things funny?

So that may explain the theory behind many ads, but why does our humour in general seem to differ so widely?

‘Even outside of an advertising concept we as humans need to find ways of dealing with our fears, so that’s one type of humour. We need to find ways of dealing with our sense of powerfulness or powerlessness particularly,’ Dr Newton says. ‘We need to find ways to reconcile contradictory or otherwise difficult information to process and so that implicates a third form of humour.’

Put simply, it comes down to ‘horses for courses,’ he says.

‘We’re all sort of wired in very different ways and I think humour will speak more to our underlying needs than to anything else.’

Of course there is one serious problem with analysing humour.

‘One of the issues with humour research is that it really destroys the humour of everything,’ Dr Newton happily concedes. ‘I don’t think that anything can ever really survive at this fairly intense scrutiny and have the humour intact at the other end.’


Originally published on this.