For decades, companies, government systems and other organizations have incorporated humor into their advertisements as a way to grab consumers’ attention and help them retain information.
It’s clear that humor is a powerful tool when advertising, for example, chips and beer during the Super Bowl. But could it be effective when presenting information about stigma-associated health issues, such as human papillomavirus (HPV)?
That’s the primary question Hye Jin Yoon, an associate professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College, set out to answer through her most recent research. Yoon worked with Eunjin (Anna) Kim, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, and Grady Ph.D. student Sung In Choi, to conduct the research.
“I wanted to see how humor can help communicate health information, especially health information that people are not very comfortable communicating or talking about,” said Yoon.
As noted in the research paper, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. It is known to infect almost all sexually active adults at some point in their lives, causing health problems such as genital warts and cervical cancer. However, despite how common the disease is, there is still a significant lack of public knowledge about HPV, the researchers explained in their paper.
“In 2022, it has shifted a bit for sure, but it is still the case that people hear HPV and don’t necessarily know that it is a sexually transmitted disease,” said Yoon.
Therefore, there is a clear need for health communicators to develop ways to effectively educate people about HPV prevention and treatment methods.
While conducting their research, Yoon and her team showed HPV advertisements, some that incorporated humor and others that did not, to a diverse group of more than 150 individuals. Ultimately, they determined that, among those who did not know much about the disease, incorporating humor, without including information about HPV being an STD, proved to be effective in creating greater attention and more positive responses.
However, when information stating that HPV is an STD was brought into the ads, the researchers found that the ads without humor proved to be more effective for those with low HPV knowledge. To those who already knew a lot about HPV, incorporating humor had no impact on the effectiveness of the ads.
“It is likely the case that once you tell them it is an STD, they have to focus on that information,” explained Yoon. “Humor takes up our cognitive space in order to process it. You have to process humor to find it funny.”
Yoon explained that the takeaway from this research is that when advertising HPV prevention and treatment methods to people who don’t know too much about the disease, it is best to use humor without explicitly mentioning that HPV is an STD. However, if HPV advertisers do decide to give explicit STD information in their ads, it is better to not use humor.
The study, “Will Humor Increase the Effectiveness of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Advertising? Exploring the Role of Humor, STD Information, and Knowledge,” was published in the March 2022 edition of the Journal of Marketing Communications.