A Majority Of Super Bowl Ads Tried To Make Us Laugh, Many Fumbled The Ball

DAIVID CEO Ian Forrester tested 2024’s Super Bowl ads to see if they could make 5,000 Americans laugh. The answer will wipe the smile from your face.

Ian Forrester

Ian Forrester

22 Feb 2024

Original article appeared in The Drum

Have you heard the one about the ad at Super Bowl 58? No? Well, I wouldn’t worry about it – it’s not that funny anyway.

It’s an all-too-familiar story at this Sunday’s sporting spectacle. 2024 was supposed to be when Adland finally relocates its funny bone after years of taking itself a little too seriously like some angst-ridden adolescent. If the Super Bowl was the first big test of this new comedy comeback, then looking at our data of viewers’ emotional responses to this year’s crop of celebrity-dominated campaigns, you have to say it largely fumbled the ball.

With record viewers, soaring ad revenue, first-time brands and new fans drawn to the show (thanks to Taylor Swift), the stage was certainly set for the ad industry to show the world that advertising has the power to lift the mood following a bruising few years of economic and political uncertainty. However, our research – where we measured how almost 5,000 US respondents felt while watching the ads shown during the Super Bowl broadcast using a combination of facial coding technology, eye tracking and survey responses – Sunday’s sporting spectacle wasn’t exactly a laughathon.

This wasn’t for a lack of trying. Two-thirds of the Big Game ads had amusement as their lead emotion, but only seven ads made more than a quarter of their audience laugh out loud. That’s 10% of the (around) 70 that run.

For the ‘Year of Humor,’ it’s a rocky start – like an aging comedian starting his comeback gig with a few weak jokes about some celebs that only manage to get a few titters on the back row.

I am sure some of you are now thinking about the campaigns you thought were pretty funny. For me, I admit the sight of Ben Affleck dressed in an orange Dunkin’ tracksuit brought a smile to my face (although it might have been an awkward reaction to being embarrassed for him).

But not everyone was amused. Only one in five viewers found the Dunkin’ ad funny. And that’s the problem with this push towards humor. While most people generally agree on what makes something sad (e.g., tragic loss) and inspirational (e.g., victory against all the odds), what makes something funny is a little harder to define.

Humor is very subjective.

How else can you explain the baffling success of UK ‘comedy’ show Gavin and Stacey?

Time to get serious about humor

While humor is by far one of the most effective emotions in an advertiser’s arsenal, it’s also one of the hardest to get right.

As with any positive emotion, intensity drives cut-through. The more intense the emotion, the stronger the memories the ad creates and the more likely it is to drive action. Yet getting to a nine or a 10 out of 10 with humor often means going to an uncomfortable place that will divide opinions.

Humor is polarizing. Often, making some audience members laugh out loud requires turning off others. This was the case this year with CeraVe, where 23.1% of viewers found it intensely amusing, but 9.3% found it confusing, and it made 12.9% feel awkward. [Editor’s note: It was my favorite ad this year].

Many brands aren’t comfortable with this trade-off, which results in creative ideas being watered down. This means content that amuses, but only mildly, making it less likely to generate significant results for the brand.

One example of this is Beyonce’s Verizon ad. It only amused 12.8% of viewers, while just 67.8% of viewers could correctly name the brand after watching – well below the US average. The ad simply wasn’t funny enough to be memorable.

Test the content

So, how can brands overcome this? Well, of course, one thing they can do is test their content before they push it out. Before going on any tour, comedians try out jokes on specially arranged audiences to see which raise the biggest laughs. The ones that don’t, they either ditch or work on.

By measuring the response, advertisers can hone their content to generate the biggest laughs – and the best results for their brand.

Own it

Another option is to embrace the fact that your ad will put some people off. This doesn’t matter as long as the majority of your target audience finds it intensely funny.

Mix it up

Another possibility is to mix humor with other emotions. That way, the ad can evoke intense emotions that create memories without relying entirely on being funny. Volkwagen’s classic Super Bowl ad ‘The Force’ did this brilliantly.

Many viewers found the moment in which the little boy seemingly used ‘the Force’ to turn on his dad’s car intensely amusing. Still, it also evoked warmth, adoration, inspiration, nostalgia and pride, working in different ways for a huge proportion of the audience (78%).

A good example from this year’s crop is Uber Eats’ ‘Don’t Forget,’ which mixed amusement (24.3%), interest (17.8%), nostalgia (12.2%) and excitement (12.2%). It meant people didn’t forget the ad, with a high brand recall of 80.4%.


So, in summary, the return to humor is welcome, but brands need to be wary of the challenges they face. Plus, brands should consider bucking the trend.