Questions? (877) 643-7244
FutureNow Article
Friday, Mar. 14, 2008

Do Men and Women Laugh at the Same Ads?

By Holly Buchanan
March 14th, 2008

It was one of those eye-opening moments. I was watching Bryan Eisenberg teach Call to Action — the seminar, not the book. (Even though I’ve seen him teach it several times, I still learn something new every time I attend.)

He showed the “Bra Scientist” video clip by Zafu that I blogged about last year.

As the audience was watching the clip, I noticed something interesting: There were certain points when the men were laughing and the women weren’t. And there were other points when the women were guffawing but the men weren’t even smiling.

The guys laughed when the scientist asked the woman in the parking lot if she would talk about her “um, well… you know, uh… breasts.” It’s a funny line, well delivered. (The guys found it funny, anyway.) She responds “Sure” and the scientist is quite pleased the interview can continue. But then she kicks his head off. Literally.

Some of the women looked a little shocked, but for other women, it garnered full-on belly laughs.

Why is this important? Because humor is one of the most pervasive devices advertisers use to try to sell products. Is that humor hitting the mark with target audiences? A recent Advertising Age article claims that “Snide Advertising is Bad for Business and Society” (subscription required but it’s available here).

In the article, Richard Rapaport discusses “the nasty tone that seems to dominate advertising” and “commercials built on sadism, on derision, on one-upsmanship — in a word, ‘snide.’” He gives this example:

Another building block of snide advertising is physical aggression. Consider the quite literally shocking ad for in which William Shatner enters the house of a frustrated online vacation shopper and stuns him with a Taser before sitting down at the man’s computer. “Did I zap your daddy?” Shatner coos at the man’s disquieted child. “Yes, I did,” he admits, “but I saved him lots of money.”

I’m not sure what percentage of Priceline’s audience is women, but women book more online travel than men do. I wonder how they feel about that ad.

While I do believe some humor is universal, I think there are certain types of jokes and subject matter that men find funny that women don’t, and vice-versa. Part of what makes something funny is that it rings true to you (“Oh my God, I’ve so been there!”). Different content may speak more to one gender than the other.

Eric Berger at the Sci Guy blog asked if women have a better sense of humor. One comment grabbed my attention. A reader named Scott has this to say:

The women in my office say that the reason they have less expectation of a reward is that most guys tell such bad jokes, and repeat them over and over. Women don’t tend to be entertained by jokes about bodily functions, sexual performance, or many of the other common topics of guy jokes. I’ve never heard a woman tell a Christa Macaullife/Space Shuttle Challenger joke, yet there are guys who still crack up over them. So perhaps women have a more “refined” sense of humor, not necessarily a “better” sense of humor.

Interesting. There’s a fascinating study done by Professor Hugo Carretero Dios at the University of Granada that finds that humor depends on the person. Or, as the press release claims, “Scientific research on sense of humor sheds light on psychological profiles.”

Carretero Dios observed a generational change in the women’s preferences to the different types of humour. “There has been change in women’s values and roles in our society,” says Carretero Dios. “In people over 45-50, we observed that both men and women laughed more at jokes degrading to women than those degrading to men”. At the same time, both men and women showed more rejection to jokes degrading to men.

However, among the participants between 18-25 years old, the trend was different and men and women had different reactions. Men laugh more at jokes degrading to women and reject those degrading to men. By contrast, women laugh more at jokes degrading to men and reject those degrading to women. Indeed, this trend is more pronounced in women.

“Could these findings show a change in educational values or even a new pattern in the roles played by women”

I think the whole subject deserves more analysis, but it underscores the importance of understanding who your audience is and how gender could affect whether that audience thinks your ads are funny.

What ads have you seen recently that you found funny — or unfunny — and why?

. .

About the Author: Holly Buchanan is a Persuasion Architect at FutureNow and co-author of The Soccer Mom Myth — Today’s Female Consumer: Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

Add Your Comments

Comments (15)

  1. That is such an interesting article! “Refined” seems to be a better to explain most women’s humor for sure. Although it does heavily rely on a person. There are plenty of women with a sense of humor similar to men. Overall, it’s a great study to envoke more thought on what appeals to the public in terms of comedic advertising.

  2. Last I checked, I’m a woman, and I thought the Priceline commercial where Shatner tased the guy was funny. Not hilarious — then again, few commercials are — but funny. In fact, I like the whole series of Shatner ads. Maybe I’m not as “refined” as the average woman, though. I’ve always been told I’m more like “one of the guys.”

  3. Very interesting. We men are animals- we will laugh at anything with the right amount of inebriation. I wish there was a laugh detector that came with your TV, so you could have like a Neilsen rating of commercials based on how many people laugh. That would be cool.

  4. Interesting article, provides insight into how men and women differ in what makes them laugh.

  5. Interesting. Don’t comedians often say that the same routine on different nights can bring a whole different set of responses?
    Certainly we are more inclined to laugh if the group is laughing, hence the value of that most annoying sound effect, canned laughter. I would love to see more if you find more.
    Thanks for a provocative opener!

  6. What makes people laugh is dependent on so many factors – gender, age, personal context/situation, group context/situation, generation … and most importantly, if alcohol is being served. I did stand-up comedy a million years ago as a 20-year old kid. Every night/audience was different, even with the same material. But I do think there are some universals perhaps … In my anecdotal experience men laugh at situations where they don’t identify with the schlub at the center of the joke/story. Women laugh when they do identify.

  7. There’s a very simple rule that every smart speaker uses. Don’t depend on humour.


    Because what’s funny in one country, isn’t funny in another.
    What was funny a week ago, is gross a week later.
    What men find funny, women don’t find funny.
    What some women find funny, other women find obnoxious.

    When we speak at conferences, we find that we can literally go from one session to another, and have literally the same demographic, and sometimes they’ll laugh at a humourous situation, and sometimes, it’s the ‘huh’ situation. And if you’re trying to tell a joke, or create something funny, and it falls flat, well…that’s very, very embarrassing when you’re in front of an audience. It slows you down. It dents your credibility just a wee bit, and isn’t worth the trouble at all.

    So what do speakers (at least the smart ones do). They tell a story. And if the audience laughs, then well and good. If they don’t, then the story still works. And the same applies to web-stories, or to advertising. You can tell a story, and yes, it works, and heck, sometimes people laugh. Unless you’re in the comedy business, you shouldn’t be trying to be overly humorous (even comedians need to test their material a lot, which is why certain scenes are cut out of comedy series).

    So yeah, tell a story.
    And if they laugh, remember the story.
    Then make it part of your message.
    So that if the audience doesn’t laugh the next time, the story still runs. And gets the message across. And then you don’t have such a worry about wondering if the men or the women, are going to laugh. Or not.


  8. Mr. D’Souza is right. Humor is both subjective and social. Saturday Night Live found that what got a laugh in rehersals often fell flat at the live performance while other unexpected material rocked the house. Sometimes it was the audience that mattered more than the material.

    SNL also highlighted a social shift in humor. SNL began in 1974 when Johnny Carson (he was the Tonight Show before Leno kids) was at his peak. SNL came into being because Carson didn’t want his reruns used on weekends. They needed replacement programming.

    SNL ushered in a new brand of humor. Younger audiences found Carson’s late night show lame and an older generation tuned out SNL as stupid and rude. Stand ups like George Carlin and Richard Pryor took Lenny Bruce’s in-your-face social commentary to the masses and a shift in “What’s Funny” happened.

    I think we are experiencing a similar social shift. The U-Toob generation defines humor in a radically different way than dear ole mom and dad. They have been raised on SNL, Southpark and the Simpsons. Jackass and Borat are hilarious to people below the 35 year old threshold but many of us from the OF (old fart) boom boom generation found it stupid and coarse.
    This cultural shift is finding its way into the marketplace. Just don’t expect a “one size fits all” humor. If it’s really funny to one group it is almost guaranteed to piss off someone else. I think you will find the humor divide is more age related rather than gender.

    That being said … John Stewarts Daily Show is always worth catching … even for us OF’s.


  9. Once upon a time… the blonde bimbo was butt of most commercial humor. Then gender correctness kicked in and the butt changed to the doofus dad.

    One difference that appears to my biased mind is that the not-so-bright women usually were resolved as loving and well-intended. The not-so-bright men usually end up being resolved as the doofus they start out as.

  10. Its true that sense of humor is really varied. I think Mama’s Family is one of the best shows in the world! Yet its not very popular. The TV Sit Coms that are popular such as Friends and Sienfeld- I can’t stand!

    They aren’t funny to me in the least.

  11. Awsome post! Thanks for the insite lol i often argue with some of my female friends about ads which they find funny! Thanks, Nick

  12. I think they do… But most of the time they don’t understand it the same way because of their different interests.

    Movies are one time where we can both of them laughing.

  13. Yes, they do laugh together at movies. But movies depend strongly on characters. So they’re not laughing at the situation; they’re laughing at something the character does.

    It’s a different scenario.

    Easy to mix up, but it’s different for sure. Because in a presentation, or an ad, or something where there’s no characterisation involved, there’s just an audience. And the audience is not locked into ‘imagining the character.’ The audience is applying concepts to themselves. In this scenario, of applying to themselves, they automatically take the situation personally.

    In the movies, it’s easy to laugh for or against the character. When the lights come on, it’s quite a different matter.


  14. More important is cultural level of targeted audience. Some groups shows different level of sense of humor and joke reaction.

  15. [...] [...]

Add Your Comments


Print this Article

Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

More articles from Holly Buchanan

Marketing Optimization Blog
FREE Newsletter Sign-Up
send it once every: