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Should you elevate your marketing with humor or play it safe?

Here’s why humor is an underutilized, effective tool in B2B marketing

John Garvey //May 21, 2020//

Should you elevate your marketing with humor or play it safe?

Here’s why humor is an underutilized, effective tool in B2B marketing

John Garvey //May 21, 2020//

Suspicion creeps into relationships little by little.

My wife started taking a Wednesday evening painting class a few months ago (before the End Times). At first, I was supportive, but every week she left a bit earlier and came home later. Finally, I decided I’d had it. She came home over two hours late one night and I confronted her.

“Sara, is there something I need to know?” I asked. “You have this new group of friends I’ve never met, you’ve been really distracted lately, you duck into the other room to read texts and you come home later every week. What’s been going on?”

“Oh honey,” she said. “I should have let you know. I was on my way to class tonight and an emergency came up at work. I’ve been at the office scrambling to fix someone else’s mistake before a big client meeting in the morning.”

“Oh, so you haven’t been out with your boyfriend?” I replied.

“Of course not!” she said in a tone suggesting what an extraordinarily stupid question it was.

“If I had been with my boyfriend, I would have come home with a smile on my face.”

Ba-dum ching!

While this isn’t the kind of joke you’d tell in a marketing campaign, it has all the elements needed to demonstrate the relationship between humor, persuasion and memory.

Incongruity-resolution theory

I just made your brain do a bunch of work without realizing it. If you “got” the joke, it because your prefrontal cortex kicked into high gear, allowing you to reconcile a preconception with a punchline that defied it. Either I was being neurotic, or my wife was attempting to keep an affair under wraps. A blithe confession would seem off-script. (By the way, this joke was fictitious.)

Scientists call this incongruity-resolution theory.

Our prefrontal cortex interprets and moderates complex social situations, and it sends signals to the nucleus accumbens and the supplementary motor area of the brain, which play their own roles in humor and laughter. The prefrontal cortex jumps into action as soon as we hear someone mention a rabbi and a priest walking into a bar.

Humor tricks your brain into doing all this extra work, but it feels like play.

The ‘guffaw cocktail’

If you’ve ever laughed at a bad joke out of kindness, you intuitively know that laughter is a social signal of acceptance. Here’s why that matters from the standpoint of both trust and memory.

When we laugh, we release oxytocin, which is simplistically referred to as the “trust” hormone or the “cuddling” hormone. Not only does oxytocin boost trust, it improves short-term memory. Even without necessarily needing to elicit laughter, humor releases feel-good neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) that also improve learning retention. If you tell a joke at the beginning of a presentation, or a transition point, it has been shown to improve attentiveness and learning.

Humor is like supplemental oxygen for your brain.

There are obvious caveats to this. It’s just wrong to try to make light of some things, and humor runs contrary to the image you probably want to achieve if you have a luxury brand. Trying to sell an $1,800 pen? Trying to raise awareness about childhood malnutrition? Keep the googly eyes at home.

But appeals to logic are overused and overrated, even in logic-driven industries like logistics and professional services. Although we may think otherwise, we make decisions on emotion and intuition. We only rationalize them after the fact.

Elevate with humor (when you can).

In summary, jokes defy expectations; good jokes delight. Humor involves complex, cognitive processes that make your brain do a bunch of work without you realizing it. And because you did all that work, your brain assigns a high value to the information.