Which is more violent? A) The Super Bowl or B) Super Bowl ads?

[An early post this week.]

The Super Bowl featured numerous injuries, but not all of them occurred on the field. According to a recent paper, violence as a means of humor in advertising is on the rise. Two of the top five rated ads from Super Bowl XLV (2011) featured violence:

#1 (tie)


The top rated ads from the previous two years (Snickers – Betty White gets tackled; Doritos – groin shot with a crystal ball) also featured humorous violence. Why the use of physical violence for humorous purposes? I suspect that it has to do, in part, that physical humor is that the form of humor that is most likely to appeal to the broad audience who watches the Super Bowl.  I was recently asked what is the most universal form of humor.

My colleague Caleb Warren and I believe that the most basic forms of humor are play fighting and tickling. Our theory, the “benign violation theory,” builds on previous work by Thomas Veatch and integrates existing humor theories to predict that humor occurs when and only when something threatens the way we believe the world “ought” to be, but at the same time seems OK or acceptable. Tickling and play fighting fit this prediction nicely. Both are mock attacks—threatening situations that also seem harmless—that often elicit laughter in human and nonhuman primates. In short, laughter signals the recognition of a benign violation.

Closely related to tickling and play fighting are other forms of physical humor like slapstick (i.e., hypothetical physical attack). A recently published paper by Gulas, McKeage and Weinberger got me thinking about the issue of physical humor in advertising. The authors highlight two things: 1) The rise of physical violence as a means for eliciting humor, and 2) The target of the violence is typically men. I suspect that part of the reason that men are more likely to be targeted than women is that it is easier to justify violence against men, especially as Gulas et al., discuss, because the men are often portrayed in negative ways (e.g., being childish, lazy, or ignorant). A dog knocking down a man is a violation, but a dog knocks down a man who is acting badly is a benign violation. The paper’s abstract:

Violence in the media has been an issue of research and public debate for many years. An examination of current humorous ads reveals widespread portrayal of men as victims of violence or in denigrating situations that are construed as humorous. This portrayal of men is an unanticipated twist on traditional themes of gender and subordination and suggests a change in what it means to be “male” in contemporary consumer society.

Charles S. Gulas, Kim K. McKeage, and Marc G. Weinberger, (2010). It’s Just a Joke: Violence Against Males in Humorous Advertising,  Journal of Advertising, 39. 109–120.