But is it funny in Berlin too?

For years, people have commented about the difference in humor styles between cultures. For example, most US citizens consider British humor to be acidly dry, German humor to be unique if slightly incomprehensible, and so on. Therefore, most marketers have shied away from including humor in global ads or transferring US-based ads containing humor to other countries.

However, research by Alden, Hoyer & Lee (1993) indicates that certain forms of humor are universal and play well in Peoria as well as Poland. Their research focused on a major school of humor that plays on the idea of incongruity, or when the listener is set up to expect one result and is instead given an incongruous result. Alden et al. note that there are three main incongruity contrast types:

  • Actual/existing and nonfactual/nonexisting – In this type of humor, there are two “scripts” that are possible; the scripts must be opposite in some definite way. Consider the following joke:

An English bishop received the following note from the vicar of a village in his diocese. “My lord, I regret to inform you of my wife’s death. Can you possibly send me a substitute for the weekend?

In this joke, the scripts have to do with the substitutes – does the vicar want a replacement wife or a replacement vicar?

  • Normal/expected and abnormal/unexpected – In this type of humor, there is a normal and expected action and the contrast of the abnormal/unexpected action. Consider the following joke:

A doctor tells a man, “Your wife must have absolute rest. Here is a sleeping tablet.” “When do I give it to her?”, the man asks. “You don’t,” explains the doctor, “you take it yourself.”

In this joke, the contrast is between who we expected to take the tablet and who is actually prescribed the tablet.

  • Possible/plausible vs. impossible/less plausible – In this type of humor, the listener is presented with a possible action, followed by an impossible action. For example:

Samson was so strong, he could lift himself by his hair three feet off the ground.

In this joke, the listener is set up to hear plausible actions related to Samson’s strength, but is given an impossible action instead.

Alden et al. (1993) research compared ads in the US, Germany, Thailand and Korea. In most cases (92% in Germany and 82% in Thailand), ads containing humor contained one of the three humor contrast types described above. The most popular type of contrast type in all countries was the expected/unexpected pairing, with over half to three quarters of the ads falling into that pairing type.

While there are no doubt cultural differences as to what kind of incongruity contrasts are considered funny in different countries, it is useful to know that incongruity constructs have the potential to work in global advertising.

References:

Alden, D. Hoyer, W., Lee, C. (1993). “Identifying global and culture-specific dimensions of humor in advertising: a multinational analysis.” Journal of Marketing. 57 (4), pp. 64-75.

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