The Politics of Humor (Or The Humor of Politics)

Laughter can bring in the votes

Posted Sep 02, 2010

Sometimes politics is a humorous business.  In the midst of a contentious electoral season, it's always refreshing to see politicians refrain from negativity --- and to poke fun at themselves and their opponents.

Political humor can work for a candidate.  Poking fun at oneself can help a candidate seem like a neighbor next door, someone that you'd like to "have a beer with."  It can be a helpful distraction from negative attacks, to help a campaign pivot from a negative to a more positive message (or the reverse).  

Humor can also be used to attack, or to criticize an opponent effectively.  Poking fun at your opponent can be catchy, memorable, and can help to underscore the shortcomings of your opponent.  And hard, biting humor can even be used to launch an attack on an opponent.

Recently the folks at Politico pulled together their "Top Political Ads of Summer."  All of these ads demonstrate how humor is used by candidates who are engaged in some of the hottest and most contested races in the country.  While each of these ads is worth watching, a couple of them are truly classic.

One of these is "Crazy", which is an RNC ad that takes a sort of "South Park" approach to criticize the Obama administration, focusing on a claim that many Democrats are distancing themselves from Obama.   This ad uses a combination of cartoonish images, and a selection of video and photo images in a small television screen (including quick shots of a number of Democrats, presenting them in odd ways).  

Another is "Where is John Boehner?', from the Campaign for Fair Elections. This one is a sort of oddball ad, starting with footage of John Boehner talking about the importance of listening to constituents.  Then we have about three minutes with two guys dressed up like Ben Franklin and George Washington, supposedly running around Boehner's district looking for Boehner.  The duo ends up looking for Boehner at a putt-putt golf course quizzing some kids, in a tanning studio, and finally at a swanky country club.  This is a funny ad, criticizing Boehner with humor.

As I looked through ads like these, I was struck by the fact that research on political communication has typically not focused much attention on the effects of ads that are funny or satirical.  I could only think of a handful of published studies that consider the political ramifications of humor --- and those that I can think of are quite recent, looking mainly at political humor in late-night comedy shows (for example, Niven et al. [2003], "The Political Content of Late Night Comedy"; or Cao [2010], "Hearing it From Jon Stewart:  The Impact of the Daily Show on Public Attentiveness to Politics.")  Instead, the literature has concentrated on negative political communications, looking at a wide range of potential effects of negative advertising on behavior (a good review of the literature is Lau et al. [2007], "The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns:  A Meta-Analytic Reassessment").

Thus, I'd say it is a relatively open question --- what are the effects of humorous political messages on voting behavior?  Does a funny political ad make you more likely to vote? Does it make it more likely that you'll look for additional information about a candidate? Does it lead you to evaluate other attributes of a candidate in a positive manner?  I think these are all questions needing attention in the research literature.