In Depth

Funny TV Ads Don't Sell Better Than Unfunny Ones -- And Can Even Sell Worse; Study Rates 10 Funniest Commercials, Finds Most Effective Balance Humor With Information, Relevance

By Jack Neff
Advertising Age

One in five TV ads are funny, and Super Bowl ads are three times funnier than the rest. But none of this makes much difference in selling stuff, according to new research by syndicated ad-testing firm Ace Metrix.

The funniest ad among 6,500 to debut in the U.S. between January 2011 and March 2012 is a Huggies ad dubbed "Baby Wets the Room" and "Geyser" by Kimberly-Clark Corp., showing a baby boy spraying the ceiling during an erstwhile diaper change by his dad. According to Ace Metrix, that ad from Ogilvy & Mather was 12 times funnier than average. By comparison, ads from the past two Super Bowls rated merely three times funnier than the average TV ad.

But while Ace Metrix found the funny Huggies ad more effective than other diaper ads on average, it finds neither Super Bowl ads nor funny ads generally work better than others.

Funny ads do get more attention and are better liked. But Ace Metrix found funniness had little correlation with effectiveness in a scoring system that incorporates watchability, likability and persuasion among other factors. In fact, funny ads were slightly less likely to increase desire or purchase intent than unfunny ones.

So how does one measure how funny an ad is? Ace Metrix tried applying the type of semantic analysis increasingly used to analyze social-media buzz to the answers consumers gave open-ended survey questions.

When people used terms including "funny, lol, lmfao, hilarious, good joke" or "chuckle," the ads were deemed funny. When at least 20 respondents out of the minimum 500 who weighed in on each ad indicated an ad was funny, the firm classified it as such. The more people who thought the ad was funny, the higher its "funny" index.

The index is based on how many of the demographically representative respondents said they found an ad funny, not necessarily the intensity of funniness. So an "lol" might well count the same as an "lmfao."

Either way, just being funny doesn't make an ad better, but being funny, relevant and informative "are the things that really make an ad work," said Peter Daboll, CEO of Ace Metrix.

Procter & Gamble Co. ads from Grey Global Group showing blindfolded people smiling as they sniff the sweaty Febreze-treated unitards of Azerbaijani wrestlers score high for both humor and effectiveness, he said. Such ads work, he said, "because you're not just going for a laugh but trying to get some of these other attributes in there."

Even so, just being funny may at least prevent ad avoidance when people can use their remotes to fast forward and change channels, Mr. Daboll said.

"If you're equal on relevance and information, almost always funny will win" over unfunny ads, he said, "because it drives the other scores like likability and attention."

Funny ads span almost all industries, but are particularly common among car insurers, where almost all the major players have them, he said. They also pop up in some surprising places, with the Clorox laundry business. Walmart, via the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., had 15 of the 100 funniest ads in the study. But because it has a lot of unfunny ones too, the retailer didn't make the list of top 10 funniest brands.

One surprise for Mr. Daboll in the study: People of different ethnic and gender groups tend to rate ads similarly for funniness, even when those ads involve poking fun at men or women.

Top 10 Funniest Brands

Ranked by Funny Index

1. Doritos: 635
2. Clorox: 585
3. eBay: 501
4. Farmers: 531
5. Slim Jim: 452
6. Aflac: 442
7. New Era Caps: 421
8. Miller Lite: 420
9. Geico: 401
10. Bounce: 365

Source: Ace Metrix

Based on open-ended responses among a minimum of 500 online survey respondents. Index compares brand to average, so Doritos ads had 6.35 times as many people who found them funny as an average ad in the study. The Ace effectiveness score takes into account a variety of rating factors, including how much consumers like the ad, pay attention to it, and are persuaded by it to want the product or service.


Top 10 Funniest Ads

1. Baby Wets Room
Huggies
Funny Index: 1214
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 118

2. Man Would Lose June
Buffalo Wild Wings
Funny Index: 1168
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 87

3. Man Afraid of Fish
Miller Lite
Funny Index: 1107
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 90

4. Woman Finds Ring In Muffin
Walmart
Funny Index: 999
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 111

5. Reply All
Bridgestone
Funny Index: 994
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 106

6. Man Would Lose May
Buffalo Wild Wings
Funny Index: 990
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 83

7. Charlie Sheen: Upgrade
DirectTV
Funny Index: 955
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 102

8. Everything for Back To College
Walmart
Funny Index: 954
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 110

9. Happy Grad
Chevy
Funny Index: 954
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 118

10. Clean Up Anything
Clorox
Funny Index: 939
Effectiveness Index vs. Category: 99

Here are some of the ads that ranked among the funniest:

Huggies

Buffalo Wild Wings

Miller Lite

Walmart

Bridgestone

Buffalo Wild Wings 2

Chevy

Clorox