Public Release: 

Humor Is Serious Business For Cincinnati Marketing Researchers

University of Cincinnati

Cincinnati --"You have no sense of humor!" That is a common complaint in homes and offices across the nation. But thanks to doctoral research at the University of Cincinnati, now people can measure for themselves.

Previous efforts to find a valid way to measure sense of humor have not been very successful, but UC doctoral graduate Thomas W. Cline thinks he has developed the most reliable and comprehensive test so far.

While working on his doctoral dissertation in marketing at the UC College of Business Administration, Cline developed a 19-item questionnaire that quantifies an individual's "need for levity," or nfl (not to be confused with the National Football League). The test, according to Cline, goes beyond sense of humor to measure a person s tendency to engage in and seek out levity, centering on humor (amusement, wit and nonsense) and whimsy (lightheartedness, caprice, spontaneity, playfulness).

Working with his doctoral advisers, UC marketing faculty James Kellaris and Karen Machleit and UC sociologist David Lundgren, Cline tested his nfl measure in five studies from 1994-97, sampling almost 1,000 students at UC and West Virginia Wesleyan College.

The nfl is measured in four dimensions. Cline himself tested a bit higher than average:

  • Internal-humor (the need to experience humor internally, for example, the jokester)
  • External humor (the need to experience humor from external sources, for example, someone who may not tell many jokes but probably patronizes comedy clubs and the like)
  • Internal-whimsy (the need to experience whimsy internally, for example, someone who is a free spirit, is often spontaneous and changes his or her plans at the last minute)
  • External-whimsy (the need to experience whimsy internally, for example the daydreamer, or fantasizer, or someone who follows the spontaneous ideas of others).

While one might expect someone who researches levity to be somewhat zany, his adviser describes Cline "as Mister Rogers on Valium, only less exciting." Kellaris chuckled, "I would tell Tom my joke of the day, and I would pre-test it on other people. I would get people doubling over in laughter and slapping their knees. Tom wouldn t laugh; he would just give his analysis."

On the whole, Cline (who most appreciates the dry wit of Great Britain a la "Benny Hill" but not "Monty Python" because he perceives it as too anti-Catholic) found that people overall tend to score high in the external humor category. "Everyone sees him or herself as a jokester, as witty and clever." While both men and women scored high on external-humor, Cline found that men thought of themselves as jokesters more often than women.

The nfl tool was not the central focus of Cline's dissertation. His real purpose was to see if he could come up with models that would predict how people react to advertising that uses humor. Having a humorous subject to research helped him to get through his doctoral studies. Don't expect him to spiel one-liners about his research, however. "It's like E.B. White, the author of "Charlotte's Web," said. 'Humor is like a frog. You can dissect it but it dies in the process,'" he said.

Seriously, Cline's research could lead to more effective message development in advertising or use of the nfl as a tool to identify market segments who respond favorably to humorous advertising. Kellaris believes the nfl may have implications far beyond advertising. "Humor is used in almost all forms of human communication so this work could have applications in negotiation, diplomacy and other forms of communication. Even classroom teaching."

Each year over $150 billion is spent on advertising in national media, with as much as 30 percent of it used to place humorous ads. Despite this widespread use, there is little understanding of the dynamics of humor, let alone how effective it can be in advertising.

Cline presented his research findings Friday, Feb. 20 at the annual meeting of the Society for Consumer Psychology in Austin, Texas.


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