Humorous Health Messages: “A Fresh Approach”
for Road Safety Advertising Campaigns?
Dr Ioni Lewis (Presenter)
Professor Barry Watson & Professor Katherine M. White
National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media
August 20 – 22, 2013, Atlanta ,GA
CRICOS No. 00213J
Presentation Overview
• Background to the project
– Road safety advertising, males, fear & humour
• The current study - Research Questions
• Method
– Qualitative approach
– Participants
– Materials
• Findings
• Discussion
– Summary of Key Findings
– Future implications for research and practice
Road Safety Advertising &
Focus on Males
• Road safety advertising is a key component of Australian
governments’ investment in countermeasures
• An often-intended target audience  males (Tay, 2002; Tay &
Ozanne, 2002)
• Males constitute high risk road users
• Relative to females (and others), males are
– more likely to engage in high risk behaviours (Fleiter et al,
2006; Harré et al., 1996)
– more likely to be involved in road trauma (ATSB, 2007;
González-Iglesias et al., 2012)
– more likely to consider themselves as “better” or
“skilful” drivers (Harré et al., 2005; White et al., 2011)
Road Safety Advertising
& Fear-based Approaches
• Fear- or threat-based messages have been common,
long-standing approach in road safety advertising in
• Graphic consequences (e.g., crash) are shown as a result
of a driver engaging in risky/illegal behaviour/s
• Evidence suggests that fear-based approaches less likely
to influence males (Goldenbeld et al., 2008; Lewis et al., 2007, 2008)
– Males report more influence on others than self (classic
third-person perception) (Lewis et al., 2007)
– Less intentional change (than females) (Lewis et al., 2007)
Road Safety Advertising &
Positive Emotion-based Approaches
• Commenced searching for alternative
approaches to enhance persuasiveness
• Growing body of evidence supporting the
potential effectiveness of positive messages,
including humorous messages for males
– Males reporting more influence on self than
others (reverse third-person perceptions) (e.g.,
Lewis et al., 2008; see also Davison, 1983)
• Important emotion-based approach that requires
further investigation
Why further investigation into humourbased health persuasion needed?
• From the fear-based literature, we know that:
• There is a need to distinguish between fear as
stimulus and response (stimulus = threat) (Donovan &
Henley, 1997; LaTour & Rotfeld, 1997)
• Threats may be physical, social, financial,
psychological (Donovan & Henley, 1997)
• Individuals fear different threats, to varying
extents (see Dillard et al., 1996)
• So, this reasoning would suggest individuals
would vary in their responses to different
humour-based stimuli (Catanescu & Tom, 2001; Speck, 1991)
Why further investigation into humourbased health persuasion needed?
• Nabi, Moyer-Gusé, and Byrne (2007, p. 51) suggest;
“. . . by determining the conditions under which humor
could be functional in serious contexts, its power could
be harnessed to raise awareness, disseminate
information, and encourage positive attitudes and behavior
while simultaneously minimizing conflict, anger, and
Persuasive Effects of Humour
• Much more known about humour in commercial
advertising than health advertising
• Increases attention (relative to a non-humorous alternative; e.g., Schoenbach,
2003; Weinberger & Gulas, 1992)
• Different conceptualisations/types of humour
exist (not always defined in research – which
one/s is/are appropriate?)
• Speck (1991) offers one conceptualisation (see also
Gulas & Weinberger, 2006)
Speck’s (1991) Conceptualisation of Humour
• Three humour generation processes
Brief Description (Speck, 1991, p.9)
Surprise occurs due to presentation of information in contrast
with the way an individual previously interpreted the world.
Requires some ridicule or criticism. For the ridicule to be
perceived as humorous, individual must attribute the arousal
to the joke’s technique or wit rather than actual attack.
Requires arousal for the well-being of a target character. This
arousal is sedated through the presentation of a playful
element, which provides a feeling of safety for the target.
Speck’s (1991) Types of Humour
Humour Type
Humour Generation Process/es (Speck, 1991, pp. 10-16)
Comic wit
Simplest &
decrease possible negative
reactions, such as offence (Hatzithomas et al., 2010)
Incongruity-resolution and Disparagement
Incongruity-resolution and Arousal safety
Full comedy
Incongruity-resolution, Disparagement, and
Complex & riskiest communication strategy
et al., 2010, p. 61)
The Current Study
• Understand more about the role and
effectiveness of humour in health advertising
addressing serious topics...
• Specifically,
• What types of humour can be found in road
safety advertising messages?
• What persuasive effects do different types of
humour have in the context of road safety
advertising messages?
• Qualitative study - interviews/group discussions
• N = 18 (over 6 groups) licensed drivers
• Males (n = 10) and females, 17-24 or 25+ yrs
• Recruited on-campus or research participant panel
• AUD$40 as a thank you/to cover travel & parking costs
• Interview schedule
– (e.g., “was it humorous? why/why not?”, “would it
influence you?”...)
• Ads chosen (identify humour types and “all on same page”
 not intending to be a test of Speck’s typology)
The Humorous Ads
• Humorous road safety ads difficult to find
• Five ads included in the study
• Comic wit (x 3), Satire (x 1), Sentimental humour
(x 1) [no full comedy or sentimental comedy]
Comic Wit – “Karaoke” (NRMA, NSW Australia)
Set in a bar with a karaoke machine and set to the
song, “Peggy Sue”. The ad shows that the more
people drink the more confident and loud they (and
their singing) become. The voice-over explains that
the more people drink the more they get false
confidence. At the final stages of the ad there is a
comical statement made about singing if they must
after drinking because unlike driving after drinking
their singing will never kill anyone.
Satire – “Hangover”, TAC, Australia
Two men at a bar drinking. One guy talks about the
future as though it has already happened. He says
that he will have too much to drink and will kill a
motorcyclist on his way home and his life will end up in
the toilet. Very brief visions of a crash are shown as he
is talking. The other male responds, “Sweet” to which
the first male replies, “Yeah, so that’s my night”.
Sentimental humour – “Fine Day”, UK Dept. Transport
The ad includes no voice-over and is played to an upbeat
soundtrack. A motorcyclist while riding is provided various
warning signs (e.g., on side of a bus, a hitchhiker’s sign).
There is an element/sense that at any stage the rider might
come off his bike so there is an element of arousal for the
character as one watches him negotiate his ride. The rider
returns home safely and tagline notes, “As if [the sorts of
warnings he received in obscure places through his ride
would ever really happen in the real world]”. When stepping
of his bike, a bird overhead expels excrement which lands
on the rider’s shoulder, implying that there just are not
warnings for everything in life.
• Thematic analysis conducted on transcripts
• Overall, key themes emerging:
– Humour needs to be clever, unexpected, and in
contrast with the everyday
– Surprise and interest in, and support for, using humour
– Caution with using humour for a serious health topic
– Persuasive function/s of humorous messages
• Quotes provided (with particular focus on responses from
male responses given interest in examining humour as a
persuasive alternative for targeting high risk road users)
Findings cont...
Clever, unexpected, & in contrast with the everyday
“I think with humour there’s a large component of the
response as it were, being unexpected. Almost like the
reverse of what you think is going to happen” (M, Gp1)
“Yeah it’s more than just toilet humour...It’s funnier on a high
level...” (M, Gp5)
Findings cont...
Surprise & interest in, & support for, using humour
• Prior to seeing/hearing any of the ads, participants were
unable to recall a humorous road safety ad
“I can’t think of any that were humorous to me. I can think of
some recent road safety ads but they were quite the
opposite of humorous” (M, Int2)
• Motivated to know more about how it could be used
“Yeah, that’s why I came along because I was thinking of
wow that would actually be interesting. I don’t know how
they could possibly incorporate that” (M, Gp5)
Findings cont...
Surprise & interest in, & support for, using humour
• But... there was hesitation/concern at the use of humour
“Initially I thought gee they would want to be careful because
humour, people may not take it seriously” (M, Gp6)
• Support for use (and relative to fear-based approaches) by
males for males
“But at the same time I think it would be useful as well [to use
humour] because scare tactics only work so much before
you actually, I tend to start blocking them out” (M, Gp3)
“A fresh approach” (M’s & F’s, Gp3)
“That’s fantastic. Why aren’t we showing those ads here?” (M,
Gp3) [in response to Comic Wit type ad]
Findings cont...
Caution with using humour for a serious health topic
• Across groups, participants emphasised that humour should
in no way be associated with serious consequences of risky
behaviours, such as crashes and injury/death
“If you’re focusing on the tragedy of accidents, putting humour
in is probably the wrong place. But if you’re trying to show
the benefits of doing the right thing then it would be the
context” (M, Gp1)
• “Tasteful” was used to describe one of the comic wit ads
shown, suggesting a potentially appropriate humour type
Findings cont...
Persuasive role and outcomes of humorous messages
• Greater focus (discussion) on the benefits to persuasion
• Recall
“I would find generally that humorous television ads I can
remember... And the ones I remember I would say are the
humorous ones” (M, Gp1)
• Humorous ads more likely to be talked about
“Yeah I think it would be the sort of thing that people would
discuss down the pub, they’d be having a beer with a mate
and they’d talk about that [humorous] ad” (M, Gp1)
Discussion - Summary of Key Findings
• Interest and support for greater use of humour in road
safety advertising but...
• Must be APPROPRIATE (see Lewis et al., 2007; Scott et al., 1990)
• Incongruity-based theories of humour generation (i.e.,
comic wit, satire, sentimental comedy) (see Hatzithomas et al., 2010)
• As a humour type, comic wit ads received favourable
comments across the groups (although that does not
mean there were not mixed views)
• Support from males for the use of humour for males
• Focus more on the persuasive benefits  and in social
media realms there is evidence to suggest humorous
messaging more likely to be forwarded (shared) (see Hseish et
al., 2012)
Implications for Future
Research & Practice
• Research
– Still much more work to be done (e.g., quantitative study,
large N, to compare relative effectiveness of different
types of humorous road safety ads)
– Importance of manipulation checks
– Defining humour type (comparisons across studies)
• Practice
– In Australia and NZ, there is evidence of greater use of
positive/positive emotion-based approaches
– Careful piloting/concept required to test individuals’
• Funding for research provided by a QUT Institute of
Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) grant
• National Roads & Motorists’ Association (NRMA) of New
South Wales, Transport Accident Commission (TAC) of
Victoria, Land and Transport Safety Authority (LTSA)
New Zealand, UK Dept. of Transport (for use of their
respective ads in the research)
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