A laughing matter – How the global importance of humour in advertising varies by gender

by Guest Contributor Kate Ginsburg | March 27, 2019

Author: Kate Ginsburg

Kate Ginsburg
VP, Media and Content Marketing
Insights Division at Kantar

Women, men, children, babies – we all love to laugh, right? Most people generally enjoy a good joke, a funny story and embrace a reason to smile. A great piece of advertising can often be the source of that giggle, so why do so few ads featuring women try to be funny?

Around the world brands seek to use humour to get their message across. In the U.S., Amazon has been on a kick with its Alexa ads, most recently the 'Not Everything Makes the Cut' spot, which premiered at Super Bowl LIII, and was named the funniest Super Bowl commercial of 2019 by USA Today. The spot explores (fake) Alexa integrated products that never hit the market – a toothbrush that plays podcasts and a hot tub that puts on a fountain show to rival the Bellagio.

Smart Speakers seem to have sparked a global trend in activating on humour. The 'Smart House' spot for REMA 1000 supermarket chain in Norway was a gold award winner in the “humour” category for the Epica awards. The spot highlights the downfall of a man trying to control his voice-controlled house after having some dental work – and it’s worth a watch.

Kantar’s AdReaction: Getting Gender Right report confirms that humour improves ad receptivity among men and women more than any other ad characteristic. However, the report highlights some differences by country and gender. For instance, we found funny ads to be most important among audiences in South Africa and the Czech Republic. Conversely, humor was less important in Japan and Turkey.


Globally, women find humour just as important as men (49 percent vs 46 percent), and in most markets men and women claim to appreciate funny ads to a similar extent. These results reinforce the point that a funny ad is usually a funny ad – regardless who watches it. In some countries, however, there was a discernable gender difference between the importance of humour to men and women. Across the countries included in the research, the largest gap was seen for Russia where humour is considerably more valued by women than by men.  Russian brands targeting women should therefore be especially open to using humour.


So humour is an important ad characteristic for both men and women. Despite this, far fewer ads featuring women try to be funny.  While 51 percent of global ads featuring men use humour, this is true of just 22 percent of ads featuring women.  This implies the marketing industry may be working on the false assumption that humour matters less to women or is less relevant to female characters.   Brands should consider whether they are providing sufficient opportunities for humour with the widest possible appeal in their advertising, while remaining cautious to not backtrack into the harmful gender-based stereotypes that limit brand growth and gender progress in the industry.

What do you think? Given humour’s universal appeal, why are so many brands still cautious about deploying funny female characters?


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  1. Duncan Southgate, April 03, 2019
    Hi Ed.  Interesting thoughts and questions.  One important clarification:  Kate is talking here about the claimed importance of humour from our AdReaction study, not current success.  The exact question is "Which characteristics make you more positive towards ads?", and "funny or humorous" comes top of the list, ahead of factors like "good music", "tells an interesting story" and "features a famous celebrity". But while humour is important, we should not necessarily assume that ads are currently successful in delivering it.  There are still plenty of ads which attempt to be funny and badly miss the mark.  So I really don't think advertisers using humour can rest on their laurels.  The huge mismatch with how often funny ads feature women should be a wake up call.  I accept there's some potential risk here, but risk vs reward is an inherent part of learning and making progress.  Also, in the full report, you'll notice that ads featuring women tend to perform less well overall.  One hypothesis we have is that nervousness around the use of humour in these situations could be part of what is holding back female-only portrayals overall.
  2. Sarge, Sirajus Salekin, March 27, 2019

    To me, as one of the male-denizen of summer prone areas that lie within the two tropical lines, women are cherished as a symbol of beauty (by default they truly are, no wonder). What I mean is, because of summer-susceptibility and hot weather as well as their effects on men's blood circulation, men tend to view women in ads as to their uniqueness than the commonplace while the humor in that ad may subside and fail to achieve to get the message across.

    In winter-prone areas, humor may work nearly in an opposite way. 

  3. Ed C, March 27, 2019

    I wonder if you hinted at the answer by noting many may be cautious that they might (inadvertently) backtrack to harmful stereotypes? What is the risk / reward for this? If men and women currently find current advertising funny, what is the value to the advertiser to change their current successful recipe (of not including more women)? I don't think many advertisers would risk showing "the downfall of a WOman trying to control her voice-controlled house" given the potential backlash of falling into a negative stereotype.

    I think advertising will change when it is ineffective. If the current advertising is not funny (or persuasive / effective) among any group, it will change. I haven't yet read Ken Jennings book loosely about the history of humor, but my guess is that what we as a people have found funny (and appropriate) has changed a bit over the years. When women (or men) stop laughing at men in ads, there will likely be a new variable explored, as humor is clearly important to our species and advertising.

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