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Humor in Persuasion on Threatening

Topics: Effectiveness Is a Function
of Audience Sex Role Orientation

Michael Conway
Concordia University
Laurette Dubé
McGill University

The hypothesis was that humor relative to no-humor appeals on planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991) and protection motiva-
threatening topics are effective for high-masculinity individuals tion theory (Rogers, 1983) and the other relying on
because they seem particularly averse to experiencing distress quick and spontaneous associations that produce deci-
(i.e., sadness and fear). Persuasive targets were sunscreen use to sions based on an intuitive or gut-level sense (see
prevent melanoma (skin cancer) in Study 1 and condom use to Windschitl & Wells, 1998). The two processing modes
prevent AIDS in Study 2. The humor and no-humor appeals pre- have been labeled rule-based versus associative (Sloman,
sented the same substantive information. In both studies, high- 1996), or rational versus experiential (Epstein, 1994).
masculinity men and women exhibited greater intent to adopt We adopt here the latter terminology. A starting assump-
the preventive behaviors in response to the humor relative to the tion of our work here is that humor operates at the level
no-humor appeal; no difference emerged for low-masculinity of experiential processing, not at the level of rational
individuals. Humor effects were not related to explicit responses analysis.
to the ads (e.g., listed thoughts and feelings). In Study 2, threat The hypothesis is that humor is effective in persua-
intensity in the media context was manipulated (moderate vs. sion on threatening topics for high-masculinity individu-
low) as experiential processing is likely favored under greater als. Specifically, we propose that for individuals high in
threat. Overall, the results seem attributable to experiential masculinity, who have been shown to have a distress-
processing of humor appeals on threatening topics by high- avoidant orientation (Conway, DiFazio, & Bonneville,
masculinity participants. 1991; Conway, Giannopoulos, & Stiefenhofer, 1990),
humor appeals, with their playfulness and diminish-
ment, are more effective than no-humor appeals in pro-
The present research was concerned with the use of moting preventive behaviors because the humor appeals
can match the manner in which these individuals typi-
humor in persuasion on threatening topics, specifically
the promotion of preventive behaviors to alleviate health cally respond to threat. Distress here refers to feelings of
threats. The humor is linked to the persuasive targets, sadness and fear, and their combination (Izard, 1991).
which are the preventive behaviors, and not to the
Authors’ Note: Authors are presented in alphabetical order. Both con-
threats themselves. In the present studies, these behav- tributed equally to the research. The research project was supported by
iors were sunscreen use to prevent melanoma (a virulent grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
form of skin cancer) in Study 1 and condom use to pre- Canada and from the Conseil Québécois de la Recherche Sociale of
vent AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in Quebec to Laurette Dubé. Address correspondence to either Michael
the replication Study 2. We built on distinctions that have Conway, Psychology Department, Concordia University, 7141
Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, PQ, Canada, H4B 1R6, e-mail:
emerged in both social and cognitive psychology, or to Laurette Dubé, Faculty of Manage-
between the modes in which people process informa- ment, McGill University, 1001 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, PQ,
tion, one being the deliberate, analytic approach Canada, H3A 1G5, e-mail:
assumed by models that have been extensively used in PSPB, Vol. 28 No. 7, July 2002 863-873
health promotion research such as the theory of © 2002 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.


In Study 1, we exposed high- and low-masculinity individ- arrived at by a conscious process of inferring feelings
uals to humor and no-humor appeals that otherwise pre- from the examination of situational cues (Leventhal,
sented the same substantive information and measured 1984). The schematic content of emotion subsumes
postexposure predisposition toward the preventive many facets of experience: It integrates specific features
behavior as well as explicit responses to the ad. The latter of the emotion-eliciting situation, a representation of
responses were assessed with self-reports of thoughts and the primary expressive motor and autonomic reactions
feelings experienced in reaction to the ad; explicit as well as a code of the nature of the subjective feeling
responses were not expected to mediate the persuasive itself and various overt, coping responses (Leventhal,
effect of humor on high-masculinity individuals. Rather, 1984). Available evidence is consistent with this concep-
explicit responses likely reflect more rational process- tual framework. That relevant actions may be included
ing. We return to this issue below. In Study 2, as a more in schematic memory structures is supported by research
direct test of experiential processing underlying humor by Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2000). Furthermore, there is
effectiveness, the humor and no-humor appeals were evidence for schematic processing in the threat domain
presented in the context of media that varied in threat (Riskind, Williams, Gessner, Chrosniak, & Cortina,
level (moderate vs. low). As articulated below, humor 2000). The link of schematic processing in Leventhal’s
was expected to be particularly effective for a greater model to experiential processing (Epstein, 1994) is easy
threat context. As in Study 1, and with the same expecta- to make because the two processes are similarly defined.
tion, explicit responses to the appeals were assessed in Both are emotion based, are posited to operate in terms
Study 2. of schemata, and the operation is considered to be
BASIS FOR THE RESEARCH HYPOTHESIS According to Leventhal (1993), although some por-
From an experiential perspective, it is not individuals’ tion of the associations in an emotion schema may be
rational consideration of explicit information that is rel- genetically determined, social influences also impor-
evant to their decision and action but rather their intu- tantly affect the range of responses that are incorporated
itions derived at an associative level from prior experi- in an emotion schema. We propose that masculinity, as
ence. An illustration of experiential processing is found an individual-level construct in sex role socialization
in a well-demonstrated effect in decision making under (Lenney, 1991), may be reflected in individuals’ sche-
uncertainty. Despite being fully aware that small and matic content for distress. Masculinity consists of an
large bowls contained the exact same proportion of two assertive, instrumental orientation (Spence, 1984) and
perceptually distinct objects (e.g., red and white jelly is reflected in characteristics such as being independent,
beans), participants often preferred choosing from one forceful, and dominant (Bem, 1981). Men are on aver-
particular bowl (Kirkpatrick & Epstein, 1992; Windschitl age higher than women in masculinity, but (as is appar-
& Wells, 1998). Furthermore, some individuals were ent in the present studies) the gender difference is wan-
even willing to pay for retaining this choice option. Par- ing (Twenge, 1997).
ticipants in these studies acknowledged that although We argue that the distress schemata of high-masculinity
they rationally knew the two options to be equivalent, individuals embody action tendencies and behaviors to
they had gut-level intuitions that guided their choice, avoid experiencing subjective feelings of distress. This
intuitions that they had difficulty spelling out clearly. A argument is based on evidence for high-masculinity indi-
similar demonstration of experiential processing has viduals having a distress-avoidant orientation. Following
been made in the context of individual assessment of vul- Suls and Fletcher (1985), avoidance responses to threat
nerability to health problems (Rothman & Schwarz, (e.g., distraction, focusing on the positive, and denial)
1998). entail a shift of attention away from either one’s psycho-
What might occur in experiential processing in logical and somatic reactions to the threat or from the
response to threat? Threat refers to the potential for threat itself, regardless of the terms used to refer to these
harm or loss and it generally elicits feelings of distress. responses. It is avoidance of feelings of distress (i.e., of
According to Leventhal’s (1984) multilevel process the- sadness and fear), not of the threat itself, that has been
ory of emotion, the manner in which people typically observed for high-masculinity individuals. More mascu-
respond to threat is most likely embedded within their line individuals report engaging in more distraction when
distress schema, by opposition to their conceptual repre- feeling sad, such as by engaging in enjoyable activities
sentation of distress, which is more likely to be at play in (Conway et al., 1990). High-relative to low-masculinity
the rational mode. In response to threat, the distress individuals have been shown to focus on positive auto-
schema would be activated and would guide feeling and biographical events when feeling distressed (Conway et al.,
action. In general, emotion schemata capture the tacit, 1991). Even when depressed, more masculine individu-
direct experience of emotions, that is, reactions not als eschew conscious feelings of sadness or guilt, being

more likely to report symptoms such as social withdrawal posit that humor in an appeal functions as a cue that
(Oliver & Toner, 1990). In response to conflict, high- influences the quantity and the favorability of explicit
masculinity individuals seem less comfortable with dis- thoughts elicited by the communication and perhaps
tress than with anger (Evans, 1982).1 also the explicitly articulated feelings and emotions asso-
In terms of experiential processing, an effective per- ciated with the message. In our view, mediation by such
suasive appeal for promoting behaviors to prevent or explicit responses is unlikely in the context of experien-
alleviate a threat is one that is congruent with the coping tial processing.
responses that are incorporated in the audience’s dis-
tress schema. For high-masculinity individuals, there are OVERVIEW OF STUDIES
many features of humor appeals that are congruent with
In both studies, high- and low-masculinity individuals
their distress-avoidant response to threat. According to were identified. Masculinity was assessed in terms of the
theories of humor (Speck, 1991; Wyer & Collins, 1992), Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) (Bem, 1981). The short
most humor appeals involve incongruency, bringing and long forms of the BSRI have been extensively used to
together frames that one would not normally expect. address (a) individual differences in reactions to distress
Incongruency is resolved by reinterpreting the original (Conway et al., 1990, 1991; Oliver & Toner, 1990), (b)
frames, diminishing the value or importance of the coping (e.g., Lee & Scheurer, 1983; Nezu & Nezu, 1987),
inferred features of one or more referents (Wyer & Collins, and (c) in other related research (Evans, 1982). In Study
1992). In this manner, there is an arousal-safety process 1, for sake of brevity, only a subset of the masculinity scale
(Speck, 1991) whereby a threat is identified followed by was administered. In Study 2, the complete BSRI was
some playful safety signal. The playful reaction to threat administered.
and the diminishment of importance arising from the All of the humor characteristics described above were
humoristic resolution of the appeal’s incongruency are addressed in the present studies: The humor involved
consistent in affective tone with a distress schema that incongruency, a threat that is resolved in a playful man-
encompasses distress avoidance as a response to threat. ner, and diminishment. All this was achieved by the play-
Research supports the view that humor may serve to ful reaction to the severe threat. The humor was directly
avoid distress. Physicians report that humor often is used relevant to the focus of the appeals (i.e., adopting the
by patients to avoid facing threat presented by a severe preventive behaviors). There was a clear intent to be
health condition (Francis, Monahan, & Berger, 1999). humorous, as is often the case in ads (Kelly & Solomon,
In sum, the rationale here is that the match between 1975). Humor and no-humor appeals were equated on
the emotional orientation of a humor appeal on a threat- verbal content and portrayed the same preventive acts.
ening topic and the distress-avoidant tendency of high- In Study 1, the appeals concerned sunscreen use to pre-
masculinity individuals faced with the threat leads these vent melanoma (skin cancer). Melanoma was identified
individuals to be more likely to adopt preventive behav- in a sober manner at the outset in both appeals and then
ior presented in the context of a humor, compared to a both humor and no-humor ads showed individuals who
no-humor appeal. The hypothesis is that humor appeals obtained and applied sunscreen lotion before going out-
to promote preventive behaviors to alleviate health doors. In Study 2, the ads concerned condom use to pre-
threats are more effective than no-humor appeals for vent AIDS. AIDS was identified in a sober manner at the
high-masculinity individuals, even though the two outset in both ads. Both humor and no-humor ads
appeals present the same substantive information on the showed the application of a condom. The humor in the
threat and the behavior. In contrast, individuals low in sunscreen and condom use ads was communicated visu-
masculinity would be influenced in similar manner by ally and concerned, in part, the manner in which the
such appeals. Moreover, because the experiential and preventive acts were completed. Finally, the condom use
the rational modes have been found to be relatively inde- appeal in Study 2 concerned intercourse, but the humor
pendent (Epstein, 1994; Sloman, 1996; Windschitl & was not sexual in nature. In addition, the present humor
Wells, 1998), we did not expect persuasive effects to be appeals do not rely on disparagement, which is a feature
mediated by participants’ deliberate consideration of of some humor (Speck, 1991; Wyer & Collins, 1992).
their explicit responses to the ad (i.e., reports of experi- The hypothesis in both studies was that a humor rela-
enced thoughts, ad-related feelings, and postexposure tive to a no-humor ad is more effective in encouraging
feelings of threat-related distress). Note that this propo- high-masculinity individuals to adopt preventive behav-
sition differs from predictions that can be derived from iors. No differences were expected for low-masculinity
models that distinguish between heuristic and elabora- individuals. The principal dependent measure in both
tive processing of persuasive appeals, that is, the Elabora- studies was intention to adopt the proffered preventive
tion Likelihood Model and the systematic/heuristic behaviors. Intentions are significant in determining
model (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). Both models seem to behavior (Ajzen, 1991). For condom use, a meta-analysis

indicated a correlation of .44 between assessed intention were and of information content (very little to very much),
and subsequent behavior (Sheeran & Orbell, 1998). The visual content (very little to very much), and technical
expected humor effect on intent to use condoms is con- quality (poor to excellent technical quality). Responses were
strued here as resting on high-masculinity individuals’ made on 7-point scales; indicated in parentheses are
experiential processing of the humor appeal. Such an endpoint labels for 1 and 7, respectively. Means were cal-
effect would not be mediated by participants’ explicit culated for the humor ratings, which were significantly
thoughts and feelings, as assessed here by thought list- correlated (r = .70). The humor ad was perceived as
ing and affect questionnaires. As noted above, such self- more humorous (M = 4.10) than the no-humor ad (M =
reports likely rest on more conceptual, rational 3.31), F(1, 53) = 4.70, p < .05. In other respects, the ads
processing. were perceived similarly: substantial in information (M =
5.68) and visual content (M = 5.95) and of reasonable
STUDY 1 technical quality (M = 4.97).
Study 1 was a 2 × 2 between-participant factorial Attitude and intent. Persuasive effects were measured
design with participant masculinity (high vs. low) and in terms of attitude and behavioral intent. Attitude
persuasive appeal (humor vs. no-humor) as factors. Par- toward sunscreen use was assessed in terms of ratings on
ticipants were identified as high or low in masculinity on two 7-point scales with endpoints unpleasant (1) and
the basis of a median split. pleasant (7) and dislikable (1) and likable (7). Intention to
use sunscreen was assessed with the question, “How
likely is it that you will use sunscreen in the near future?”
PARTICIPANTS Responses were made on three 7-point scales with end-
points unlikely (1) and likely (7), improbable (1) and proba-
Participants were 58 male and 78 female young adults
ble (7), and impossible (1) and possible (7). For each partici-
(M = 18.6 years) enrolled in a major Eastern Canadian
pant, average scores were computed for the scales on
university. They were undergraduate students in one of
attitude toward sunscreen (r = .75) and for the behav-
five small sections of a core mandatory course in man-
ioral intent scales (α = .90).
agement and marketing. Twenty-four men and 42
women were low in masculinity; 34 men and 36 women Masculinity. Participants indicated to what extent six
were high. The high group included participants with personality characteristics apply to them. These were
scores equal or superior to the median. Participants selected from those in the BSRI with the highest loading
received no incentive to participate. on the masculinity dimension (Bem, 1981): aggressive,
MATERIALS AND MEASURES assertive, dominant, forceful, have leadership abilities,
and strong personality. Responses to each item were
Persuasive appeals. Both humor and no-humor ads fea- made on 7-point scales with endpoints never or almost
tured the same verbal content. What varied across the never true (1) and always or almost always true (7). For each
humor and no-humor versions of the ad were the fea- participant, an average masculinity score was computed
tures of the pictorial frames, which were designed by a (α = .85).
professional cartoonist. For instance, both ads began
with someone looking outside at a glaring sun. Later Explicit responses to the appeal. These were assessed with
frames in the no-humor ad showed an individual buying an adaptation of the retrospective thought-listing proce-
a regular bottle of sunscreen lotion in a drugstore, apply- dure (Wright, 1980). Participants listed all thoughts,
ing it in the usual manner, and standing outdoors in win- beliefs, feelings, and emotions that may have come to
ter. In contrast, in the second frame of the humor ad, a mind as they were looking at the ad. The contents of par-
tanker truck appeared labeled SPF 15 (Sun Protection ticipants’ protocols were divided into individual units of
Factor 15; this information overlapped with text pre- information. On average, participants generated 3.77
sented in the appeal) and a hose was used to fill up a units. Units were reliably coded in terms of three
small bottle of sunscreen. In some of the subsequent schemes: valence (positive, negative, or neutral; 90%
frames of the humor ad, a couple playfully splashed each agreement), target (ad or preventive behavior; 83%
other with sunscreen and sprayed a snowman with agreement), and nature (cognition, emotion, or global
sunscreen. The ads also included summer scenes. evaluation; 82% agreement). Favorability indices were
In a pretest, 27 male and 28 female participants (M = computed overall and for each target. Self-reports of ad-
22.8 years) drawn from the same population as for induced feelings also were obtained. Participants indi-
Study 1 evaluated either the humor or no-humor ad. cated how much they had felt calm, serene, sad, and
Evaluations were made of how humorous (not at all to depressed on 7-point scales with endpoints not at all (1)
very much) and amusing (not at all to very much) the appeals and very much (7). Positive (r = .47) and negative (r = .65)

item ratings were significantly correlated. For each par- PERSUASION EFFECTS
ticipant, mean positive and negative indices were calcu-
Higher numbers reflect more favorable attitude and
lated. Finally, postexposure threat-related distress was
intent. See Table 1 for means of attitude toward the prod-
assessed by asking participants to indicate how they felt
uct and intent. The ANOVA for attitude toward
when they thought about melanoma. They indicated to
sunscreen revealed an Appeal Type × Masculinity inter-
what extent they felt anxious and distressed. Ratings
action consistent with expectations, F(1, 126) = 6.26, p <
were made on 7-point scales with endpoints not at all (1)
.05, ω2 = .06. Planned contrasts revealed the superior
and very much (7). For each participant, an average score
effectiveness of the humor over the no-humor appeal for
(r = .68) was calculated.
high-masculinity participants, F(1, 126) = 7.95, p < .01,
Manipulation check and controls. Humor, informative- ω2 = .05. No significant appeal type effect emerged for
ness, visual content, and technical quality ratings were low-masculinity individuals. For intention to use
administered as in the pretest. A mean index was calcu- sunscreen, the Appeal Type × Masculinity interaction
lated for the significantly correlated (r = .86) humor was also significant, F(1, 126) = 5.69, p < .05, ω2 = .04, with
ratings. high-masculinity individuals tending to express greater
PROCEDURE intent in the humor relative to the no-humor condition,
F(1, 126) = 3.53, p = .06, ω2 = .02. Appeal type made no
The study was conducted in classrooms and was pre-
difference in behavioral intent for low-masculinity indi-
sented as concerned with advertising for health promo-
viduals (p > .10).
tion. Participants were provided a printed copy of one of
the ads. The two versions of the ad were randomly dis- EXPLICIT RESPONSES TO THE APPEAL
tributed. Participants then responded to the attached
Analyses of variance with appeal type (humor vs.
questionnaire. The following measures were taken, in
no-humor) and masculinity (high vs. low) as between-
the listed order: attitudes toward sunscreen and behav-
participant factors were performed on the various indi-
ioral intent, explicit responses to the ad, ad-related feel-
ces of explicit responses, including self-reports of ad-
ings, and threat-related distress. Finally, participants
related positive and negative feelings and self-reports of
completed the manipulation check on the appeals and
threat-related distress. There were no significant effects
the masculinity measure. The measure of masculinity
for ad-related feelings. For the thought listing, there
was introduced as concerning characteristics that may
were no significant Masculinity × Appeal Type interac-
relate to how one responds to an ad.
tion effects on any of the favorability indices (all ps > .20).
Results That the obtained results do not concord with those
observed for behavioral intent was not due to a lack of
Analyses of variance (ANOVAs) with appeal type
validity of the data. Favorability indices for the thought
(humor vs. no-humor) and masculinity (high vs. low) as
listing and self-reports of ad-related feelings were signifi-
between-participant factors were per formed on
cantly related in a coherent manner among themselves
responses to the manipulation check and on dependent
and with attitude and behavioral intent. The ANOVA of
variables. Research hypotheses were addressed with sin-
threat-related distress revealed a marginally significant
gle degree of freedom a priori contrast analyses with two-
main effect for masculinity, F(1, 128) = 3.57, p = .06, ω2 =
tailed tests. Preliminary analyses with participant gender
.02, that was qualified by a significant Appeal Type × Mas-
introduced as an additional factor failed to reveal any sig-
culinity interaction, F(1, 128) = 5.17, p < .05, ω2 = .03. See
nificant interaction effects involving gender. The only
Table 1 for means. High-masculinity participants felt a
significant effects for gender were main effects for atti-
similar level of distress subsequent to both appeals,
tude and intent, with women more than men being
whereas low-masculinity participants reported less dis-
favorably disposed toward sunscreen.
tress after the humor (M = 2.85) relative to the no-humor
MANIPULATION CHECK appeal (M = 3.71), F(1, 126) = 4.21, p < .05, ω2 = .03. Thus,
The ANOVA of the humor index indicated that par- the explicit responses to the appeal did not reveal pat-
ticipants perceived the humor (M = 4.22) appeal as more terns of results consistent with the persuasive effects of
humorous than the no-humor appeal (M = 3.51), F(1, humor for high-masculinity participants.
129) = 5.52, p < .05. Analyses of the other measures Discussion
revealed that the two ads were perceived in similar man-
ner in terms of informativeness (M = 4.70), visual content In line with expectations, high-masculinity individu-
(M = 4.91), and technical quality (M = 3.76). No signifi- als expressed more favorable predisposition toward the
cant masculinity effects emerged for the manipulation use of sunscreen to prevent skin cancer after being
check measures. exposed to the humor relative to the no-humor appeal.

TABLE 1: Mean Responses to Humor and No-Humor Appeals as a likely. Groups of participants in a classroom setting were
Function of Masculinity exposed once to a one-page print advertisement. To
Masculinity address this concern, the experimental setup was modi-
fied in Study 2.
Low High
Study 2 was designed to provide a more direct test of
No- No-
the view that experiential processing underlies the
Variable Humor Humor Humor Humor
humor effect by manipulating the intensity of threat in
Study 1 the media context in which the appeal was embedded.
Attitude toward Research has shown that the likelihood that a person’s
sunscreen use 4.84a 4.57a 4.03a 5.01b thinking be dominated by experiential processing
Behavioral intent 5.52a 4.83a 4.73c 5.56d
increases with the emotional charge of the situation
Threat-related distress 3.71a 2.85b 3.60a 4.06a
Study 2 (Epstein, Lipson, Holstein, & Huh, 1992). The expecta-
Moderate-threat condition tion was that high-masculinity individuals will be more
Behavioral intent 4.25a 4.03a 3.58a 4.65b influenced by humor appeals under both low and mod-
Low-threat condition erate threat conditions and that the humor effect will be
Behavioral intent 3.94a 4.25a 3.84a 3.90a
even greater under moderate than low threat. Humor is
NOTE: Measures were on 7-point scales in Study 1 and 5-point scales in unlikely to be effective in extremely threatening con-
Study 2. Higher numbers reflect more positive attitude, stronger in- texts.2
tent, and more distress. Within masculinity group, means with super-
scripts a and b differ at p < .05. Means with superscripts c and d differ at
Study 2 was conducted as a conceptual replication of
p = .06. Study 1. Only the core conceptual model remained
intact. In Study 2, a broader sample of students was
The greater impact of humor on high-masculinity indi- recruited as participants, and the experimental protocol
viduals was not reflected in corresponding differences in was administered in a laboratory setting. The experi-
their explicit responses to the appeals. The findings sug- mental protocol was administered to one participant at a
gest that their experiential processing of the humor time. As in Study 1, participants in Study 2 were again
appeal rendered their endorsement (and adoption) of faced with a severe health threat, but now the topic was
the proffered preventive behavior more likely. condom use to prevent AIDS. The medium of the mes-
Results for low-masculinity participants were only sage also changed: The appeal was now presented as a
partly consistent with expectations. Although, as TV ad. This medium may be most suitable to communi-
expected, humor did not induce a more favorable pre- cate humor (Gruner, 1996). The humor and no-humor
disposition toward sunscreen (neither for attitude nor appeals on condom use were presented after partici-
intent) for low-masculinity individuals, they did report pants viewed a 15-min segment that was similar to what
less intense distress in response to the humor as opposed they might view at home on TV. This enabled a closer
to the no-humor appeal. Why did this occur? One might simulation of normal viewing conditions but more
argue that humor distracted these respondents from importantly allowed us to manipulate the emotional
paying too much attention to the aversive nature of the intensity of the context in which the appeals on condom
threat. However, if this effect was due to distraction as use appeared. Context threat level was either low or
has been found in studies on the effect of humor in com- moderate. Prior research on context effects for the pre-
mercial ads (e.g., Sternthal & Craig, 1973), we would sentation of appeals (e.g., Goldberg & Gorn, 1987)
have observed a parallel pattern of results on the shows that the emotional content of the media context
thought-listing responses, with less relevant material, in may be transferred to the ads it embeds.
particular less negative material, coming to mind as they
were looking over the appeal. This was not the case. One STUDY 2
goal of the second study was to determine whether a sys- The study is of a 2 × 2 × 2 between-participant factorial
tematic set of results would emerge across both studies design, with participant masculinity (high vs. low),
for low-masculinity individuals. appeal type (humor vs. no-humor), and context threat
The persuasive effects of humor for high-masculinity level (moderate vs. low) as factors. Participants were
participants did not rest on a differential pattern of identified as high or low in masculinity on the basis of a
explicit responses to the ad. As such, rational processing median split, and they were randomly assigned to one of
does not seem to underlie the humor effect, and experi- the four Appeal Type × Context Threat combinations.
ential processing is thus implied. One might argue that The humor and no-humor ads concerned condom use
there is another reason why null effects emerged for to prevent AIDS and presented the same verbal content.
explicit responses, however. The experimental proce- The expectation was that high-masculinity participants
dure and stimuli may have rendered such effects less will report greater intention to use condoms in response

to the humor relative to the no-humor ad and that this diminishes male sexuality, which is typically associated
effect will be particularly intense under a moderate with power and dominance (Zilbergeld, 1992), not with
threat context. As in Study 1, explicit responses to the play. Diminishment also seems to occur in the playful
appeals were assessed, which included self-reports of ad- donning of the condom. Condom use is considered
related feelings. useful in disease prevention, but not as pleasurable. In
the humor ad, the serious nature of the behavior is
PARTICIPANTS In a pretest, 57 participants rated the ads on humor
Participants were 76 male and 69 female students (M = (in response to the items amusing and funny) and inter-
18.6 years) enrolled at a community college in Montreal. est (items were boring [reverse-coded] and interesting).
They were recruited from the general college popula- Responses were made on 11-point scales with endpoints
tion by ads placed on bulletin boards. Participants com- strongly disagree (1) and strongly agree (11). Humor and
pleted the BSRI and were identified as low (31 men, 37 interest ratings were correlated .62 and .72, respectively;
women) or high (45 men, 32 women) on masculinity averages were calculated. Technical quality was rated on
based on a median split; the high group included partici- a single-item 11-point scale with endpoints mediocre (1)
pants with scores equal or superior to the median. and excellent (11). Separate ANOVAs were conducted on
Responses to a survey on sexual practice administered at the humor, interest, and technical quality indices. As
the end of the study indicated that 75% of participants expected, the humor appeal (M = 8.82) was rated as fun-
had sexual intercourse at least once in the prior year. nier than the no-humor appeal (M = 7.80), t(55) = 2.20,
More than half of these individuals reported never or p < .05. Humor and no-humor appeals were similarly rated
rarely using a condom. There were no significant mascu- on interest (M = 8.89) and technical quality (M = 7.84).
linity effects for frequency of sexual intercourse or for Threat context. Context threat level was manipulated by
condom use. Participants were paid $5 Canadian. Pretest having participants view one of two 15-min TV segments.
participants were drawn from the same population. Moderate threat was induced with a segment on the dan-
MATERIALS AND MEASURES ger of extinction of whales. Low threat was induced with
Masculinity. Masculinity was assessed with a computer- a segment on the advantages of making cities hospitable
ized version of the BSRI. The BSRI consists of a masculin- for birds. In a pretest, 40 participants viewed the seg-
ity scale (20 items), a femininity scale (20 items), and ments and rated their mood on the items anguished, dis-
filler items. Masculinity and femininity items are inter- couraged, distressed, and fearful. Responses were made
nally consistent; coefficient alpha estimates range from on 15-point scales with endpoints not at all (1) and
.75 to .90, and test-retest reliability coefficients range extremely (15). The scale was reliable (α = .90); an average
from .76 to .94 (Bem, 1981). In the computerized ver- score was computed. As expected, pretest participants
sion, participants indicated on a 5-point scale anchored reported more distress for moderate (M = 5.81) than for
by never or almost never (1) and always or almost always (5) low-threat context (M = 3.35), t(38) = 2.38, p < .05.
how well each item applied to them. Item presentation
Intent. Behavioral intent was measured by asking par-
order was randomized for each participant.
ticipants to indicate their agreement with the following
Persuasive appeals. Both the humor and no-humor ads two statements: “Using a condom in my next sexual
were adaptations of an existing audiovisual ad. Both intercourse is . . . [likely or certain].” Responses were
appeals had the same verbal content. Ad duration was 1 made on 5-point scales with endpoints labeled strongly
min. In the humor appeal, humor was conveyed by visu- disagree (1) and strongly agree (5). Responses correlated
als (animated graphics) in combination with sound .75 and were averaged.
effects. First, the threat of AIDS is raised in a sober man-
ner, but this is immediately followed by an animated fea- Explicit responses to the appeal. A thought-listing mea-
ture in which a happy-go-lucky penis character with sure was administered, as in Study 1. On average, partici-
facial features is walking with its testicles, humming pants generated 5.26 units. Coding paralleled that of
along as he goes, and then excitedly dons a condom Study 1. The same favorability indices were derived
when he encounters a female character (in the guise of a (intercoder reliability > 78%). Participants reported their
dark, circular shape with a beckoning face). In the no- ad-induced feelings in response to the positive items
humor appeal, the penis was not presented as a charac- calm, reassured, and pleased (α = .58) and the negative
ter, and neither was the circular shape. The presentation items depressed and uneasy (r = .55); responses were on a
was neutral in affective tone. Incongruity and diminish- 5-point scale with endpoints not at all (1) and very much
ment are manifested in different ways in the humor ad, (5). Mean indices were derived. Response latency (in
including that the happy-go-lucky penis character milliseconds) for the behavioral intent ratings was also

assessed. Greater elapsed time may reflect elaboration- gender for masculinity in the analyses. No significant
based processes (Fazio, 1990). femininity or gender effects emerged.
Manipulation check. Participants were presented the Manipulation check. The humor appeal (M = 4.27) was
terms amusing and funny and indicated their view of the perceived as more humorous than the no-humor appeal
appeals on 5-point scales with endpoints strongly disagree (M = 3.71), F(1, 128) = 17.95, p < .01; the two appeals
(1) and strongly agree (5). They also evaluated the techni- were rated similarly for quality. No significant mascu-
cal quality of the ads, in terms of the same scale, in linity effects emerged for the manipulation check
response to the items excellent and mediocre (reverse- measures.
coded). Mean humor (r = .67) and quality (r = .78) scores Persuasion effects. As expected, the superior effective-
were derived. ness of the humor relative to the no-humor appeal for
PROCEDURE high-masculinity participants was a function of context-
threat level, as revealed by a significant Masculinity ×
There was one participant at each session. The study Humor × Context Threat interaction, F(1, 136) = 4.76,
was presented as concerned with public policy and p < .05; ω2 = .03. The Humor × Masculinity interaction
health issues. Participants first practiced on the com- contrast was significant under moderate-threat context,
puter to familiarize themselves with the five keys they F(1, 136) = 7.15, p < .01, ω2 = .04, but the same interaction
would later strike with the fingers of their dominant contrast was not significant under low-threat context
hand to indicate their responses (as per Fazio, 1990). (see Table 1 for means). Contrast analyses showed that
Key labels varied from very positive to very negative: ++, under moderate threat, high-masculinity participants
+, + –, –, and – –. These labels were later associated with expressed stronger behavioral intent after the humor
verbal labels (e.g., strongly agree to strongly disagree) for cer- appeal than after the no-humor appeal, F(1, 136) =
tain measures. Participants then completed the comput- 10.37, p < .01, ω2 = .06; the humor and no-humor ads
erized version of the BSRI under the guise that personal- under moderate-threat context did not differ in impact
ity may influence individuals’ responses to health for low-masculinity individuals. Under low threat, there
promotion. To reinforce the cover story, attitudes on var- were no significant appeal type effects. Comparing the
ious public policy and health-related issues were then impact of the humor appeal on high-masculinity individ-
measured. Next, participants left the computer and uals across context-threat levels, it was shown more effec-
watched a 15-min segment of a TV documentary as they tive under moderate threat relative to low threat, F(1,
“might do at home.” This segment was the context-threat 136) = 3.74, p < .05, ω2 = .02.
manipulation. To bolster the cover story, two health-
related appeals (on physical exercise and nutrition) Explicit responses to the appeal. As in Study 1, the various
were presented to all participants in the middle of the measures of explicit responses were significantly related
segment. The appeals on condom use were presented at in a coherent manner to each other and with behavioral
the end of the segment. Participants then returned to intent. Nevertheless, and again as in Study 1, the pattern
the computer to complete measures. After reporting of results for explicit responses to the appeal did not cor-
their attitudes concerning a range of health-related respond to that observed for behavioral intent. Analyses
issues, they were informed that the computer randomly of favorability indices, ad-related feelings, and response
selected (of the three appeals) the one on condom use latency for behavioral intent ratings failed, with one
for which more information on their reactions would be exception, to reveal significant effects involving mascu-
collected; this served to maintain the cover story. Except linity. The exception was a masculinity main effect for
for the thought listing that matched that of Study 1, all negative ad-induced feelings, F(1, 136) = 4.69, p < .05, ω2 =
measures were assessed on the computer. Order was as .03; means were 2.05 and 1.69, respectively, for low and
follows: ad-induced feelings, behavioral intent, manipu- high masculinity participants.
lation checks, and thought listing.
The findings of Studies 1 and 2 support the hypothe-
Unless otherwise indicated, the analyses for the sis that high-masculinity individuals are more influenced
respective measures were ANOVAs with participant mas- by humor relative to no-humor ads on threatening top-
culinity (high vs. low), appeal type (humor vs. no- ics: High-masculinity individuals expressed more favor-
humor), and context-threat level (moderate vs. low) as able predisposition toward the use of sunscreen when
between-participant factors. As in Study 1, a priori con- faced with melanoma in Study 1 and reported signifi-
trast analyses also were conducted. Preliminary analyses cantly greater intent to use condoms when faced with
were conducted to address possible femininity and gen- AIDS in Study 2. These effects were observed for both
der effects by substituting femininity (high vs. low) or women and men high in masculinity. In contrast, low-

masculinity individuals reacted in similar manner to the ever, both threats are in the health domain, both being
humor and no-humor ads. These results were observed associated with the prospect of death. It remains an
in Study 1 and in the moderate-threat context condition empirical question whether the effects observed here
of Study 2. Although similar, albeit weaker, results were would be apparent for more mundane threats. We sus-
expected under low-threat context in Study 2, no humor pect that they would be. Avoidance responses also have
results emerged. It is unclear why no humor effect been observed, for instance, in response to threats to the
emerged in this condition. self-concept (Bower, 1990).
The use of humor in appeals on threatening topics The present studies have a number of limitations.
seems to concord with the distress-avoidant orientation Study 1 was conducted with university students and
of high-masculinity individuals. Experiential processing Study 2 with college students. Participants were likely
of the humor appeals by high-masculinity individuals middle class, and it is unclear whether the findings gen-
seems to underlie the effectiveness of humor. When a eralize to other populations. Yet, gender roles seem
more direct test of experiential processing was per- more accentuated among working-class than middle-
formed in Study 2 by manipulating the emotional inten- class individuals (Argyle, 1994), and therefore, the
sity of the media context, outcomes expected under impact of masculinity may be even greater. One need
experiential processing were found: Persuasive effects of also note that the effectiveness of humor may be a func-
humor on high-masculinity participants were demon- tion of culture (Unger, 1996). Another limitation of the
strated under moderate threat (although the expected, studies is the topics of the ads and ad contents. In both
weaker effect under low-threat context did not emerge). studies, the ads presented information that was likely to
Across the two studies, no systematic pattern of results be already familiar to participants. This is not unusual
emerged for low-masculinity individuals, except for the for messages on health preventive behaviors (e.g.,
persistent absence of persuasive effects of humor related to drunk driving). Nevertheless, one should note
appeals. It may be that in the absence of socialization that humor may be less effective in presenting novel,
toward specific instrumental responses to distress, complex information on unfamiliar topics.
these individuals may show greater variability in their A third limitation bears on the weakness of our humor
responses to the appeals. manipulation. In Study 1, the mean rating of the humor
The results suggest that the effectiveness of a health- appeal was only slightly above the midpoint of the
promoting appeal may have little to do with the audi- humor scale. In Study 2, it was higher than midpoint, but
ence’s explicit responses to the appeal, in terms of the difference with the no-humor appeal, albeit statisti-
reported thoughts and feelings. Results from neither cally significant, was not great. Replications with stron-
Study 1 nor Study 2 provide indication that the humor ger humor manipulations should be done. However, one
effect is linked to high-masculinity participants’ explicit could argue that the present humor manipulations have
responses to the ad. Although one might argue that provided a conservative test of our hypothesis because
some of the indices for ad-induced feelings had low reli- we were able to demonstrate a significant interaction in
ability, it remains that across both studies there was no the face of a weak manipulation. As a fourth limitation,
indication for any of the measures of explicit responses the humor ads concerned threatening topics only. One
to the appeals that the humor effect observed for high- interpretation of these findings is that high-masculinity
masculinity individuals was mediated by such responses. individuals prefer humor ads on any topic, threatening
These various thought and feeling self-reports are likely or not. Although this could be an interesting possibility,
based on a more conceptual, rational consideration of it seems unlikely. Prior research on masculinity does
the current situation and of one’s own reactions to the not imply a general preference for humor but rather a
situation. As noted earlier, experiential and rational distress-avoidant orientation. The latter does not neces-
modes of processing are considered to be relatively sarily imply the former. A last limitation pertains to the
independent. media context manipulation in Study 2. The manipula-
Questions arise as to the generalizability of the results. tion of the threat intensity of the media context was rela-
Consider first the generalizability to other domains of tively weak and the level of threat we considered moder-
threats. The same pattern of findings for behavioral ate was below the midpoint of the scale. Here again, we
intent emerged in the two studies, despite the fact that obtained a significant interaction in spite of a weak
the threat of melanoma (in Study 1) differs from that of manipulation. In addition to replicating the results with
AIDS (in Study 2). The likelihood of contracting skin more effective threat intensity manipulations, future
cancer increases as a function of sunburns and cumula- research also should explore whether the observed
tive sun exposure (Canadian Cancer Society, 2000). To effects of media context threat remain unchanged when
contract HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which its domain is relevant to the threat featured in the per-
causes AIDS, one sexual encounter may suffice. How- suasive communication. The existence of meaningful

associations between the source of threat portrayed in reported that more masculine individuals had lower scores on the
index she labeled avoidance, but this scale is quite heterogeneous.
the media context and in the ad may add to the emo- Avoidance items include, among others, crying, self-criticism, express-
tional charge of the situation (Epstein et al., 1992), ing irritation to oneself or others, and avoiding people in general, as
which should increase experiential processing (and well as actual avoidance items (e.g., trying to forget the whole thing).
2. Extreme threat may lead people to exhibit particular defensive
humor effects) for high-masculinity individuals. reactions such as denial (Zur, 1990). The relatively subtle humor
In spite of these limitations, the present findings pro- effects observed here would be less likely to operate.
vide a valid test that humor may profitably be used in
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