Ha! Ads That Make You Laugh Don’t Really Make You Buy

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It’s funny how commercials work. Or rather, according to a new study, it’s funny how some ads succeed in making viewers chuckle, but ultimately fail in what they’re supposed to do—entice couch potatoes into actually buying the products being advertised.

Remember all of those commercials from the 2012 Super Bowl? Many of them were funny. In fact, Ace Metrix, an ad-testing firm that’s just released a study on the effectiveness of humorous commercials, estimates that the ads from the last two Super Bowls have been three times funnier than the average TV commercial.

But while funny ads are good at grabbing viewers attention, they aren’t necessarily effective in steering that attention in ways the advertiser hopes. Namely, making viewers desire the product or service featured in the ad.

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How in the world is that supposed to make me interested in buying the product? Countless TV viewers have wondered just that after watching a commercial that’s perhaps hilarious, perhaps bizarre, or perhaps barely shows the brand or product that’s supposedly being advertised.

New research conducted by Ace Metrix focused specifically on one of the most popular commercial categories—the funny ad—to see whether humor in ads does more than make viewers laugh. Does funniness translate into increased sales? Increased interest? Increased desire for the product? The people ponying up serious cash for these funny ads seem to believe they do. Why else would they drop millions on advertising campaigns and prime-time 30-second spots?

To test the effectiveness of humor in TV ads, Ace Metrix created a funny index, based on if, and how often terms like “lol, lmfao, hilarious, good joke”—oh, and also “funny”—appeared with regards to various commercials. As AdAge’s story on the study explained:

The more people who thought the ad was funny, the higher its “funny” index.

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In online surveys, Ace Metrix also gauged the “level of persuasion” and other factors for these ads. What the firm discovered, per International Business Times, is that the funny ads are “more appealing and more memorable than their unfunny counterparts.” At the same time, however:

Those same commercials were less likely to increase desire or intent to purchase than commercials that played it straight. In other words, funny ads are useful for entertaining viewers, but are not the most effective way for advertisers to convince those viewers to buy the product.

This isn’t to say that all ads that are funny aren’t effective. The perfect ad is one that is appealing and memorable and effective all in the same breath. According to Ace Metrix, one of the more successful ads in its study was “Baby Wets the Room” for Huggies. The commercial, in which a baby boy getting his diaper changed sprays all over the room like a fire hose, was deemed 12 times funnier than average, and also more effective than the average diaper commercial.

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What counts is that, funny or not, commercials should somehow be pointing out why the product being advertised is so amazing and wonderful. This should seem obvious, but again, remember how many times you’ve watched an ad and have been left with no clue as to what was being advertised, let alone why you might need it. In the case of the Huggies ad, the general idea comes across that this diaper is so good it can contain even a baby boy with some obviously very serious bladder issues. If an ad is merely funny and does nothing to bolster the featured product’s attributes, however, it’s probably a failure, no matter how funny the ad is.

Michael Curran, the author of the study and Ace Metrix’s director of insights and analytics, put it this way:

“Messages must be built of substance and should use humor as a supplement — not a replacement — to create the most effective ads … Funny ads drive other great advertising attributes such as attention and likeability. However, low information and relevance on many funny ads results in creating lower desire for the advertised products than non-funny ads.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
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