Beer, Humor, and Memory: Failed TV Commercials

Beer, Humor, and Memory: Failed TV Commercials

Posted Jul 29, 2010

I love beer commercials. I remember several funny ones I saw while watching basketball games this year. In the ads, men easily expressed their love for their favorite beer but stumbled in declaring love for their romantic partners. Even though I remember the beer ads, they were complete failures. Why?

Humor is often well remembered. My students often remember my stupid jokes better than the content of the class sessions. One of our graduate students, Hannah Summerfelt, has recently completed a set of studies looking at memory for simple jokes (the paper has been accepted for publication and should appear before too long, with Louis Lippman and me as co-authors). She noted that several factors may contribute to why humor is well remembered.

Summerfelt found that distinctiveness is one key component of the humor effect. When a joke is relatively rare among its surrounding material, it will be well remembered. This is why my rare funny line, against the boring backdrop of my lectures, is well recalled. Keenan, MacWhinney, and Mayhew suggested this effect for college lectures back in 1977. A comment that was dramatically different from the typical content of a class session was very well remembered. In contrast, one particular joke, buried in a series of jokes in a comedy routine, is not so distinctive and thus harder to remember. One joke, in a serious classroom lecture, is distinctive. Those funny beer commercials were also quite distinct in the background of college basketball games (which felt very serious to me, since I was rooting for my favorite team).

Summerfelt also argued that people reconstruct jokes. The best puns, for example, are tightly constrained. The joke only works if you get the punch line right. Change a word or two and the joke isn't funny. Constraints help people reconstruct a joke correctly. Consider the following pun: The police were called to a daycare where a three-year-old was resisting a rest. You ought to be able to reconstruct this one pretty well. Police, daycare, and some crime that could make sense in both contexts? What other crimes will fit there? Or how about this groaner: Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He's all right now. Puns work because the same sound pattern has two meanings. Change to a phrase that means the same as one version you lose the pun. Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He's ok now. This version isn't funny (of course, you may not think the first one is either). The constraint of matching multiple meanings helps you reconstruct the joke and get it right even if you don't remember everything about the exact wording.

Those beer commercials work as nicely constrained reconstructions as well. I see a guy listing several reasons why he loves his beer. His girlfriend asks him why he loves her. I see the guy's dumbfounded look when he fails to have any answer. Nice. Since this fits with the basic stereotype of socially incompetent men and with the current pastime of making fun of men, this basic set up is easy to reconstruct and tell you about. Maybe you even think it's funny. Maybe you remember seeing one or more of those commercials. The ad works as a funny commercial that will be well remembered.

What beer was being advertised in those commercials? Was it Miller? Bud? Sam Adams? Some light beer? I have no idea. This is why it fails as an effective ad for that particular product. The joke does not lead to the brand.

If we want ads to be effective for a particular product, they must lead to the brand name. Something about the ad should be directly connected to the particular beer that was being advertised. When I think about the funny ad, I should be led directly to the brand name. The name needs to play a critical role, so that I will reliably reconstruct the particular product, rather than same vague idea of beer.

Humorous ads will generally be remembered. People enjoy them. They talk about them on Monday after the Superbowl. But do they recall what brand was being marketed? The ads will work better if the humor leads directly to the product brand name.

What if selling the particular product isn't the only goal? What if the goal is to get people to buy more of that type of product, to drink more beer? Will this ad work for that goal? I'll address that point in my next post (see Sneaky Commercials).