Does humour in advertising really work?

In this case study, you'll discover the effects of humour an an ad (concept) and essential points for introducing a new product/service from your business.

Client 1200px-Centraal_Beheer_logo.svg
Used techniques
fMRI Eye Tracking BGI
lees verder
"Neuro research is the solution for Centraal Beheer for pre testing ads. Neurensics translates the research insights into concrete and realistic adjustments of the advertising material which can be directly used by our advertising agency." Natasja van Buuren, Marketing Intelligence, Centraal Beheer

The new service of Centraal Beheer

Centraal Beheer is a Dutch insurance company known for their humourous ads. The humourous situations always lead to a person needing insurance from Centraal Beheer. Recently, Centraal Beheer has expanded its portfolio and became a broad service provider. Now, Centraal Beheer offers all kinds of services for households, such as help with DIY construction jobs, or advice on installation of solar panels.

To communicate the additional services well, Centraal Beheer tested two ad concepts containing its signature Centraal Beheer humour. Centraal Beheer asked two important questions:

  1. Which of the two humourous concepts works better?
  2. Which of the two concepts best communicates its recent portfolio expansion?

Take a look at the two concepts below. They are in Dutch, but you can get a rough idea by viewing them.


Concept 1: Bouncing castle


Concept 2: Trampoline

How are these ad concepts tested? 

Test participants viewed the concepts in the MRI. Why? To measure the unconscious emotions and factors activated by the concepts.

These unconscious emotions and factors influence consumer behaviour. They can only be measured with fMRI, as fMRI provides access to brain regions where advertising effects are active.

What are the most important emotions and factors for consumer behaviour? 

There are 13 emotions and factors relevant for consumer behaviour, such as Desire, Trust and Attention.

How do we know which emotions are effective?

The activated emotions and factors are compared with established benchmarks for Effective, Likeable and Annoying storyboards.

An effective ad strikes a good balance between positive and negative emotions, where the positive emotions persist at the end of the ad.

How are the emotions and factors further measured and interpreted?

  • Eye Tracking: While participants view the concept in the MRI, their eye movements are simultaneously tracked via Eye Tracking. This provides data on elements which attract attention and elements which do not.
  • Brain Guided Interpretation (BGI): As a follow-up, BGI (online questionnaires) is used to discover possible reasons emotions are activated by the concept. The combination of fMRI and questionnaires provides valuable and complete results.

Results concept 1: Bouncing Castle

fMRI: Bouncing Castle scores high on the positive emotions Value and Desire

Centraal Beheer case concept testing neuromarketing - desire en value

Bouncing Castle scores above average on the emotions: reward (Value) and attraction (Desire) (see the peaks in the green and purple areas). This indicates that positive emotions are being activated. Brain Guided Interpretation (BGI) was used to discover which scenes activated these emotions:

  • The scene where the party prepped.
    Because Centraal Beheer does your chores for you, you have time to do something else. The handyman is also reported as a safe idea.
  • The joke at the end.
    When grandpa is hanging on the rope, it seems to get dangerous for a moment. Since nothing really happens, the joke is appreciated and no negative emotions prevail.
  • The final message.
    Centraal Beheer communicates a clear solution to the problem: even when things go wrong, Centraal Beheer solves it with an appropriate insurance.

fMRI - Point for improvement: Communicate the new service more clearly

Bouncing Castle scores low on the positive emotion Expectation (see green area). With BGI we investigated what caused this:

  • Respondents indicated that it's not very clear what they can expect from the new services of Centraal Beheer. More information is needed about the new service: "With what kind of chores can they help you?", "What are the costs?" and "What are the benefits?".

This should be emphasized more to increase the score on Expectation. This gave Centraal Beheer the idea to communicate the solution through other media channels as a good addition to the TV ads.

Centraal Beheer case concept testing neuromarketing

Results concept 2: Trampoline

fMRI: Trampoline shows an imbalance of emotions, but is Likeable. 

Centraal Beheer Concept Testing Trampoline verschil met Luchtkasteel Concept Testing

The balance between the positive and negative emotions is less good for Trampoline compared toBouncing Castle (see the difference between the two concepts, green line = Trampoline and the grey line = Bouncing Castle). In particular, Trampoline scores less well on Value and Desire. 

Although Trampoline is not above average in effectiveness (an effective concept activates more positive than negative emotions), it does score high on Likeability. BGI was used to investigate which scenes produce this likeable feeling:

  • The scenes with the father and son.
    The nice feeling is activated when the father and son assemble the trampoline and eat a sandwich.
  • Jumping on the trampoline.
    The scenes of father and son having fun on the trampoline are well appreciated. 
  • The end when it turns out that the trampoline is next to a cliff.
    This unexpected twist is seen as typical Centraal Beheer humour and is well appreciated.

Why doesn't Trampoline activate the right balance of emotions?


To find out why the balance of emotions is not optimal in Trampoline, we looked at the fMRI timeline, see above. The fMRI timeline measures whether positive or negative emotions were activated in a scene. Positive emotions are activated if the line rises above 0 and negative emotions are activated if the line falls below 0.

The humour in the last scene unconsciously activates negative emotions

What respondents consciously described as funny, unconsciously activated negative emotions. An example of this is the very first scene of the father and son jumping on the trampoline next to the cliff. The fMRI time line drops below 0. After this, the line rises slightly to the 0-point, but not enough. It even ends below it. 

Unconsciously there isn't a positive reaction to the solution of Centraal Beheer (an insurance), because it wouldn't be a solution: should someone fall off the cliff, an insurance of Centraal Beheer wouldn't matter anymore (the person would probably be dead).

This activates significantly less reward (Value) and Desire than in Bouncing Castle. In the Bouncing Castle concept there is a problem - the castle flies into the air - which can be solved by an insurance of Centraal Beheer. This results into a positive ending. With Trampoline it doesn't.

Humorous situations and Eye Tracking analysis

Centraal Beheer Eye Tracking humor gevaarlijke situaties

Eye Tracking shows that the humorous situations are watched closely. 

  • In the case of Bouncing Castle, the scene when grandpa grabs the flying bouncing castle is watched carefully. Not only the scene, but also the distance between grandpa and the bouncing castle is watched carefully to estimate how dangerous the situation is.
  • In Trampoline, when the cliff comes into view, the respondents quickly look down to see how deep it is. 

As mentioned earlier, the negative emotions that are activated by the Bouncing Castle aren't dominant. There are enough positive emotions activated after the humorous scene. The creators of the concept did a good job with humour and compensating the negative emotions that were activated by it.

However, this wasn't successful in the case of Trampoline. The danger wasn't sufficiently compensated by positive emotions. As a result, the positive emotions Desire and Value, which are essential for consumer behaviour, are low.

Important conclusions

  1. Bouncing Castle had the highest score on the positive emotions and uses humour in the right way.
    This is because Bouncing Castle shows a problem and a solution and sufficiently compensates the activated negative emotions of the humorous scene with positive emotions. We see the castle into the air (the problem) and at the end the message that Centraal Beheer also offers an insurance (the solution of Centraal Beheer). 

    This ensures that Bouncing Castle activates enough positive emotions and scores high on the benchmark of effective storyboards.

    Trampoline shows no problem (no one falls off the cliff) and if someone does fall off the cliff, then an insurance from Centraal Beheer is of no use. The danger activated by the humorous scene at the end is not sufficiently compensated by positive emotions. As a result, this concept scores lower on the benchmark of effective storyboards.

  2. Bouncing Castle needs to communicate its new services more clearly.

    Centraal Beheer solved this by communicating it through other media channels. 

Advice to Centraal Beheer

The concept 'Bouncing Castle' is the clear winner and has a lot of potential. The concept scores above average on the positive emotions Desire and Value and creates a good balance of all emotions.

Centraal Beheer eventually followed our advice and chose the 'Bouncing Castle' concept. They've adapted the concept in such a way that the father shows less fear when the castle flies into the air to activate (even) less negative emotions.

Key takeaways:

  1. The effectiveness of humour in advertising can be tested in the concept phase
    For years, Centraal Beheer has been looking for the right form of humour in their ads. Humour that is effective and activates the right balance between the negative and positive emotions.

    Humour often comes in the form of glee (laughing at the expense of others) and consciously we find this funny and enjoyable. Unconsciously, it activates negative emotions and which makes us want to avoid the behaviour or situation.

    That's why it is important to test the effectiveness of the humour you use in your ads, and that's exactly what we did for Centraal Beheer.

  2. Communicate the most important message as clearly as possible
    Next, think carefully about the most important message you want to communicate. It's important that it's clear for the target group. A concept test can answer this question for you.

  3. Effective ads need to have the right balance of positive and negative emotions
    The right balance between emotions makes a concept, and thus the ad, effective and assures you that your advertising money is well spent.


And now you:

  • Aren't you sure about how to communicatie new services or products? 
  • Do you want to know if your message is clear enough?
  • Do you use humour in an effective way?

Contact us to discuss the research possibilities.


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