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Online Humor: a Positive or Negative Tool for Brands?

la pertinence d’une réponse humoristique face à l’expression du mécontentement des clients sur les médias sociaux -c -Tero Vesalainen
Published on
17 November 2021

Mathieu Béal, Professor and Researcher in Marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management, and Yany Grégoire, a Professor at HEC Montréal, analyzed how customers perceive humorous responses from companies when they express their dissatisfaction on social media. This research provides information not only on the appropriateness of a humorous response to customers' expressions of dissatisfaction, but also on the form of humor to be used according to the brand's identity. Let's take a look.

Mathieu Béal, Specialist in Services Marketing, analyzes customers' expressions of dissatisfaction on social media as a specific field of research. "We know how much the customers expressing dissatisfaction online can tarnish a company's reputation. When a customer complains, a whole community of Internet users sees the company's responses. In this context, a website has identified the best humorous online responses from companies. It turns out that when the company has fun with the situation, humor can generate a positive image of the company, because it will seem offbeat," says Mathieu Béal. The research conducted by the two Professors and Researchers, and published in the Journal of Service Research in February 2021, however, identified some significant points.

Benevolent Humor or Aggressive Humor?

To carry out their study, the authors based their research, on the one hand, on a field survey by analyzing companies' humorous responses on social media and, on the other hand, on two experiments based on different scenarios. The objective was to simultaneously capture the adverse effect - i.e. the negative effects induced by humor - and the favorable effects produced by humor when it is used on social media. 

"We therefore collected humorous tweets in response to online complaints and analyzed the reaction of other Internet users and customers. "Two types of humor were identified: affiliative, or benevolent humor (laughing with the complainant), and aggressive humor, which involves laughing at someone's expense - in this case, the complainant. "The results show that online users respond more favorably (in terms of likes, retweets, and purchase intent) when companies use affiliate humor rather than aggressive humor. "

Why? "Affiliate humor works best because it is 'abuse' that is perceived as benign by Internet users (Benign Violation Theory). It is a violation that is not serious in the eyes of the complainants. Hence its positive perception," notes Mathieu Béal.

An Inverse Effect According to Brand Identity

However, the last experiment carried out by the authors shows an inverse effect depending on the brand personality: while some brands should always favor affiliative humor, aggressive humor generates higher purchase intentions when linked to brands with an offbeat identity. 

For example, a brand like Disney, which has a traditional and good-natured image, will be better off opting for a humorous, affiliative tone. Whereas a brand like Burger King, with a young, dynamic, and "spicy" image, will be able to use aggressive humor to good effect.

In summary, the humorous tone used by a brand in its responses to customer complaints on the Internet should remain consistent with the brand identity. "When in doubt," concludes Mathieu Béal, "it is best to use affiliate humor. "

Read the study

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