Weapon 6: Banana peels
Movies provide many teachable moments. How else would we know that removing a man’s shirt can make him immune to bullets?
Or that the greatest risk factor for a cop being shot is having an upcoming retirement party?
Or that you should never go near a banana peel lying on the ground?
Ok, so the banana peel gag is usually played for laughs, not as a teachable moment, yet there’s still plenty we can learn from it. You see, our preference for certain types of humour, such as the banana peel gag, is influenced by a range of factors, including, as some colleagues and I recently found, how powerful we feel. What’s more, canny companies can use these humour preferences to shape how we perceive their brands.
To understand how, let’s back up a moment and consider the three major processes that give rise to humour*.
*It’s a truth universally acknowledged that theories of humour are never funny. I’m not going to try and dispel that notion, so if you feel your eyes glaze over at any stage, pull your emergency chute and scroll down until you see a person waving flags.
The first process, called incongruity resolution, occurs when two previously unrelated stimuli are suddenly brought together in a way that makes sense. Examples? Puns, jokes with punchlines, and some New Yorker cartoons.
The second process, called safety arousal, views humour as a safety valve for releasing the tension that emerges when we encounter emotionally arousing stimuli. Examples? Humour based on death, sex, objects capable of generating fear, and taboo topics more generally. Also, some New Yorker cartoons.
The third process, called disparagement, occurs when people are belittled or made to look stupid. Examples? Put down humour and comedic violence. Oh, and some New Yorker cartoons.
The diligent link follower will by now have realised that I linked to the same New Yorker cartoon as an example of each process, and that’s because the three processes can occur in the same joke. Other jokes, however, may draw upon one of these processes more than the others.
Ok, time to draw our emergency chute pullers back into the conversation.
So what does the banana peel gag have to do with ads and brands?
The gag is an example of disparaging humour in that the person slipping on the banana peel is made to look stupid, and this type of humour is particularly attractive to those who feel powerless. Why? As I explained in a previous post, the powerless are always looking for ways to feel more powerful. Disparaging humour consequently has a perverse appeal to the powerless; it makes them feel superior relative to the person being made to look stupid in the joke.
Disparaging humour is found in many ads, whether as comedic violence or through the ridiculing of one or more of the characters featured in the ad. The proportion of ads featuring disparaging humour also appears to have increased over time.
So what happens when the powerless see ads with disparaging humour? They develop a more favourable attitude towards brands featured in the ad, for starters. What's more, they also have better recall of any information presented in those ads. And all this because seeing someone else being ridiculed makes the powerless feel superior.
Not a particularly endearing view of humanity, is it? Perhaps this will help you feel better…