Humor and Persuasion

The effect of persuasive communication is dependent on the message, author characteristics and the audience. Researches about persuasion have explored on the effects of the various aspects of communication on audience and the persuasion outcomes (O’Keefe, 2009). The author has identified aspects such as author characteristics and the message communication strategies as some of the factors that influence the effectiveness of persuasion. The use of humor in persuasion is widely used in advertising and lesson plans owing to its influence on the effectiveness in persuasion (Cline & Kellaris, 1999). Humor has had the most conceivable impact in advertising. Some researchers have found the use of humor to have produced positive impact, while others have found it to have negative impact, while some have pointed that it produces no impact at all.

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How Humor Can Support the Effectiveness of Persuasion

            The use of humor has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of persuasion through creation of a positive effect (Lyttle, 2001, p. 207). According to (Martin, 2010, p. 137) persuasion can be attained through two routes as outlined in the Elaboration Likelihood Model. According to the author, other than the message, persuasion can be influenced by other factors such as intelligence, self-esteem, motivation, attention, distraction and involvement. When a listener is exposed to a message, the message can take the central or peripheral routes. The central route involves the elaboration of message by the listener, where the message is found to be relevant by the listener owing to pre-existing ideas or beliefs. However, the peripheral route is based on responses that occur because of heuristic factors such as moods, attributes of the source of message or emotions.

            According to (Martin, 2010, p. 137), positive persuasion effects of humor have been found to result from peripheral rather than the central route processing of message. Humor has the potential to influence emotional aspects of the listener such as the mood, comprehension of message and cognition. Humor that creates positive moods increases the effectiveness of persuasion, while humor that evokes bad moods are more likely to reduce the success of persuasion. It is due to this influence of humor on the listener emotional variables that makes the use of humor increase the effectiveness of persuasion.

            Humor also increases the effectiveness of persuasion among the audience who are motivated less to think about certain issues in the advertisement. According to (Gulas & Weinberger, 2006, p. 115; Martin, 2010, p. 137) humor has been found to increase the effectiveness of persuasion among the more-masculine than the less masculine audience. Martin, 2010, p. 138) points that the less masculine people are more averse to the feelings of distress and would tend to engage in focus on positive, denial and destruction. According to the author, the use of humorous message increases the effectiveness of persuasion among such people especially when the advertisement involves threatening topics such as an advertisement for sunscreen for prevention of skin cancer and condoms as a means of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

            The other way in which humor can enhance the effectiveness is through its ability to create positive affect (Lyttle, 2001, p. 207). According to (Cobley, 2013, p. 281) apart from the listener cognitive responses, listeners also react affectively to persuasion information. According to affective theory of persuasion, stylistic/ ancillary materials and/or verbal content can arouse affective responses. Affect encompass both the moods and emotions. According to the author, moods can be defined as the affective state with no specific object. They are lasting, backgrounded and diffuse, while emotions are foregrounded, intense and fleeting. Emotions and moods are influenced by cognitive responses to environmental situations, psychological arousals, motor expressions and motivations. Humor that arouses emotions and moods, leads to motivation of the audience, culminating to increase the effectiveness of advertisement.

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            The use of humor in persuasion has been found to be effective by increasing the liking of the source. The choice of a shared humor by the source can be a reflection of a shared sense of humor which can show shared values. This is particularly true of the humor is not disparaging but illustrates the beliefs of the source as being same as that of the listener. According to (Lyttle, 2001) moods aroused during persuasion are linked to the source. Humor that evokes excitement during persuasion can create a feeling of happiness and the desire to be associated with the source or product. For example, the use of exiting comments can lead to gaining more attention from listeners during advertisement and possible purchase of a product or service.

            Persuasion has been defined as the process of communication whose goals are to shape, reinforce and/or alter the audience responses (Cobley, 2013, p. 273). The effectiveness of persuasion, whose central purpose is to alter the audience response, can be effective if humor is employed in the persuasion process. According to (Lyttle, 2001) the use of humor during the persuasion process is often designed to block system central processing, thus effectively altering the audience responses, making the persuasion process effective. (Gulas & Weinberger, 2006, p. 114) points that humor influences persuasion in two measures, the intent to use the product and the perceived product quality. Moreover, the use of humor can help in enhancing the trust of the source. The sources which speak against their self-interest are more likely to attract increased credibility from the audiences, thus enhancing the effectiveness of the persuasion process.

Risks of Using Humor in Persuasion

            Although humor can increase the effectiveness of persuasion by increasing the liking of source, creation of positive affect and increasing liking of source, it poses some risks. According to (McDonough & Egolf, 2015, p. 827-28) the use of humor has inherent risks such as the likelihood of creating attention rather than credibility/persuasion. In addition the use of humor may not be appropriate for some categories of products/services and maybe unpleasant if disparaging comments are used, causing negative effects.

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            The line of distinction between humor or what is funny and an offensive ad is small to determine. According to (McDonough & Egolf, 2015) though humor can enhance effectiveness to the advantage of the advertiser, it could create serious negative consequences to the advertiser if the humor in the ad is perceived as offensive. For example, a disparaging remark towards a marginalized group may be humorous to some section of audience but may be offensive to the group. This can cause the business to suffer and a change in the general public perception towards the advertiser.

The main purpose of using humor is to create message credibility and persuade listeners into purchasing an item or services. However, there is an inherent risk of too much humor creating increased attention to the humor itself than the message credibility. This is risky as it inhibits the central purpose of humor as a strategy of persuasion. For example, the use of a comedian in an advert can lead to the audience getting engrossed on the comedian antics forgetting the product or service attributes as advertised. Moreover, sometimes the audience may not understand the joke. According to (McDonough & Egolf, 2015) research has shown that failed humor is less effective as a more serious approach.

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