Super Bowl Ads Using Extreme Humor May Alienate Some Customers

Jan. 31, 2007

AUSTIN, Texas—As the Super Bowl approaches and advertising executives and brand managers wait for the responses to their expensive new commercials, researchers at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin say that ads using extreme humor may be striking the wrong chord with some consumers.

Marketing Professors Leigh McAlister and Wayne Hoyer and doctoral student Jennifer Young studied consumer reactions to humor in past Super Bowl commercials (which often create humor with violence or sexually explicit content). Their statistical analysis identifies points at which storylines escalate the level of “abnormal behavior” causing intense positive or negative feelings about the ad.

“There are always these moments in the humorous ads when a distinct split in a consumer’s reaction occurs,” McAlister said. “Targeted consumers react positively. Those customers who are not part of the target market react negatively.”

The problem for large companies is that while a Super Bowl ad may work very well at capturing the interest and approval of the target audience—usually young, heterosexual males—it may turn off many non-target audience members.

“The danger here is that marketers may be affecting their whole portfolio of brands,” Young said. “If a consumer is offended by one ad, he or she may choose not to purchase a different product within the portfolio.”

For instance, Frito-Lay may only be selling Lay’s potato chips to young men during the Super Bowl, but its ad may turn off an elderly woman who might purchase the company’s line of Quaker snacks.

And yet the extreme nature of the humor is what the target audience loves and what keeps advertisers using this advertising method again and again.

The researchers say this form of advertisement, using “in groups” and “out groups” to create a commercial’s storyline, is a technique advertisers are consciously employing to gain the attention of their target audience.

“It’s a dark side of human nature that something can’t be funny to one group unless it offends another group,” McAlister said. “In some instances, consumers know the advertisement is for them because it taps into something others don’t understand.”

For more information contact: Leigh McAlister, professor, McCombs School of Business, 512-471-5458, 512-471-1128; Jennifer Young, McCombs School of Business, 512-636-8803.