Neuro-Insight’s Heather Andrew: why laughter can be the best medicine for ads too

In pursuit of engagement, brands are increasingly attempting to tug on viewers’ heartstrings with gritty emotional narrative – as evidenced by many of this year’s Cannes Lions winners. Winners including Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad (below) and the Humanium Metal Initiative moved audiences across the world with clear social purpose and compelling, poignant narratives.

There’s no question that raw emotion can be highly effective at building a connection with viewers, but it’s a shame to see fewer brands attempt that same connection through humour. Appealing to viewers’ sense of humour is still a form of emotional engagement, and eliciting a few laughs is therefore no less effective as employing a serious emotional strategy.

Brands need only look at the way the brain responds to humour for proof that upbeat, light-hearted strategies can hold their own against other types of emotional narratives. There’s plenty of evidence around the notion that human beings naturally love to laugh – when we do, hormones are released that make us happier, relieves us of stress and strengthens our bonds with other humans.

This evidence was supported by a recent study conducted by my company which measured brain response to the sound of laughter in American sitcoms, on a second-by-second basis. One group watched clips of Friends and The Big Bang Theory with laughter tracks included, whilst the other watched the same clips with the laughter removed.

The results revealed dramatically higher levels of approach (positive emotional response) to the clips featuring laughter, even when the viewers weren’t laughing out loud themselves. When watching something designed to be funny, and when hearing others laughing alongside it, mirror neurons cause the corresponding parts of our own brain to respond in the same way. This means that even if we aren’t physically laughing, we still share in the enjoyment.

Moreover, the study revealed that other brain responses were also much higher when the laughter tracks were included. The laughter appeared to add another layer of meaning to the content, driving higher levels of response among the groups that heard it. Sharing in the enjoyment, elicited by the sound of laughter, drove higher levels of personal relevance, which in turn, encouraged greater levels of memory encoding – a vital response metric for brands, associated with future decision-making.

As a result, the study confirmed that humour is a dependable way to ensure your brand is remembered with a positive association attributed to it. The difference in brain response between the two groups in the study also reflects the way in which we have evolved as social animals; we’ve grown to become empathetic to the actions of others and receptive to shared response.

So getting creative and making people laugh together is a reliable way of achieving stand-out in a crowded marketplace. Although maybe sometimes daunting, brands shouldn’t be afraid of trying to win consumers over by making them laugh. It may seem more frivolous but, from the brain’s perspective, making a viewer crack a smile can be just as effective as encouraging them to shed a tear.

Heather Andrew is CEO of Neuro-Insight.

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