Funny Super Bowl Ads Are Getting More Violent. But Are They Working?

Betty White Super Bowl ad(A version of this story originally appeared on Slate.)

During the Super Bowl, you’ll likely be seeing a whole bunch of violent tackles and wince-inducing carnage. And we’re not referring to the action on the field—we’re talking about the commercials.

Marc Weinberger, a University of Massachusetts professor who’s one of the preeminent authorities, estimates that three-quarters of all Super Bowl commercials are designed to be funny, a far greater share than what you normally find during commercial breaks. To learn more about these high-profile spots, Weinberger recently combed through years of funny Super Bowl commercials. He found that the percentage of them that relied on aggressive, violent humor had skyrocketed, jumping from 13.6 percent to 73.4 percent between 1989 and 2009. Men were at the receiving end of most of the carnage—mauled by an ornery badger in one spot, walloped in the groin with a snow globe in another. But ladies weren’t completely safe; in one Pepsi Max commercial, an attractive blonde is beamed in the head with a soda can. From the looks of it, the on-screen bloodshed has yet to wane; just take the ass-kicking Kia robot and an Oreo-inspired library riot shown during last year’s Big Game.

Why the violent uptick? Weinberger believes it’s because marketers think that to stand out from the crowd, they have to turn up their ad’s humor all the way to 11. “I think the stakes have gone up,” he says. “South Park, Adult Swim — I think these shows have let the lid off what is acceptable socially, and that allows advertisers to use more edgy, suggestive and more aggressive humor.”

But does this over-the-top hilarity actually sell? After fairly extensive work on the matter, researchers have nailed down a few ways in which funny ads succeed. Humorous marketing does tend to get people’s attention, and if the source of humor is well connected to the message, folks are more likely to remember the ads and recall the products being advertised. As the ad world is quick to point out to their clients, humorous ads are also more enjoyable and more likely to be discussed. It’s why a 2013 Nielsen survey found that 81 percent of consumers prefer funny Super Bowl spots to serious ones.

But as for all the other things funny marketing is supposed to do—like getting people to actually buy the product—conclusive proof just isn’t there. One of the problems is that aside from high-profile flops—like the 1999 Just For Feet Super Bowl commercial so universally reviled the shoe company sued the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi for malpractice for $10 million—

it’s difficult to figure out whether most funny ads succeed or bomb. That’s why, in course of writing our upcoming book The Humor Code, we were approached by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The Washington, D.C.–based organization had launched a new birth-control campaign that pushed the comedic envelope to get the attention of 18- to 29-year-old men. There were YouTube videos of talking condoms and Saturday Night Live Digital Short–inspired hip-hop songs and cartoons of Coca-Cola douches. But the folks in charge weren’t sure the public service announcements were working—so it hoping McGraw and his Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder would run experiments on its sex-ed PSAs.

McGraw decided to focus on one of the organization’s latest spots, a web video featuring a spokesman losing it while reading cue cards about birth control statistics among young adults.

McGraw thought the video might be turning off its intended audience, since it made the people who don’t use birth control the butt of the joke. (In funny ads, it’s important to think about who’s getting made fun of. It’s why Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads were so successful, since the laughs were always at the expense of Microsoft, Apple’s competitor.)

To find out, we worked with the production team behind the PSA, producing three new versions of the video. Two employed a gentle, affiliative form of teasing:

The final video was a control version, a straight reading of the facts in a somber fashion.

With the help of cognitive scientist Phil Fernbach and graduate student Julie Schiro, McGraw recruited a group of 18- to 29-year-old males and assigned each to watch one of the four videos. The results were surprising: Subjects who watched the dry, boring control version of the PSA were far more likely to seek out more information about sexual health than those who saw any of the funny versions. As McGraw figures, while the funny versions might have been attention grabbing and entertaining, they also signaled the situation wasn’t serious. Teen pregnancy was something to laugh about, not ponder.

Maybe, then, the excess of funny, violent commercials during the Big Game is partly to blame for a recent Ad Age study that found that a whopping 80 percent of Super Bowl commercials had no impact on consumers’ desire to buy the products advertised, compared to a 60-percent rate for non-Super Bowl ads.

Does that mean we’d all be better served if all Super Bowl ads were just a solemn laundry list of facts? Probably not. Maybe a better way to create effective funny marketing, though, is to think of it like a good wedding toast. Start with attention-grabbing jokes, then put all kidding aside and make your point.

As for all those Super Bowl spots featuring guys getting hit in the groin? For the good of humanity, let’s put those to rest.