Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2017

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/13/2019

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Community and Behavioral Health

First Advisor

Campo, Michelle L.

First Committee Member

Ashida, Sato

Second Committee Member

McLaren, Rachel

Third Committee Member

Parker, Edith

Fourth Committee Member

Young, Rachel


While humor has been extensively studied in commercial marketing, there is less known about how humor functions in the context of a public health campaign. This dissertation addresses that gap by exploring the use of humor in public health messaging through (1) a systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature, (2) a content analysis of public-health related print ads from the Ad Council, and (3) an experiment testing the role of humor styles in the effectiveness of humorous anti-binge drinking messages. The systematic review and meta-analysis assembled all the currently known research on humor in public health messaging. Overall, the success of humor depended on many factors, including the health topic and characteristics of the audience, and humor was found to not differ drastically from other appeal types in its influence on key persuasion outcomes. The meta-analytic component of this review found that humor had a positive impact on ad liking and behavior and a negative impact on perceived self-efficacy and intention, with only self-efficacy demonstrating a statistically significant difference between the appeal types. In the content analysis, Ad Council ads spanning 70 years of public health messaging were evaluated in order to understand the utilization of important communication elements in health communication campaigns. A sample of print ads was assembled, and ads were coded for theoretical constructs, ecological level, emotional appeal, and the presence of humor. The sample included a variety of campaign topics, ranging from drunk driving to polio vaccination to child abuse. Overall, campaigns were found to most often lack response efficacy information, and the presence of specific behavioral suggestions regarding the health issue decreased over time in favor of contact information. Most campaigns targeted the individual level, with few targeting organizational, policy or other systems-level changes necessary to facilitate most (if not all) public health behaviors. The experiment examined the role of matching ad humor styles to individual humor styles in humorous anti-binge drinking ads aimed at college students. Those with detrimental humor styles were found to perceive messages matched to their humor style as more humorous than messages not matched to their humor style. Perceived humor was found to be negatively associated with message rejection and positively associated with likelihood of sharing the message. This study re-affirms the importance of ensuring humor campaigns are actually perceived as humorous by the audience. Overall, this dissertation suggests that humor should be used in well-tested public health campaigns in order to realize its potential benefits for affecting health behaviors.

Public Abstract

This dissertation studied how humorous messages can communicate health topics to the public. Humor in public health messaging was studied in three ways. First, all articles on the topic were assembled and their results combined. Second, health-related print ads produced by the Ad Council were collected, and the use of emotions, humor, and other information in the ads was recorded. Third, two types of humorous anti-binge drinking radio messages were tested in order to investigate how the ways that people use and react to humor in their own lives impacts how they respond to different types of humorous public health messages. Overall, humor is a good option for messages communicating something an audience does not want to hear, such as messages that are too frightening or boring or those that are asking people to stop doing something they enjoy. Because humor is appropriate in these situations, developers of humor messages should not shy away from the inclusion of information about health threats or ways to avoid them. However, there is the potential for humor messages to be confusing or for the audience to not take humor messages seriously, and future research should explore how to balance the advantages and disadvantages of humor. Essential to the success of humor messages is that the audience finds them funny, and more research needs to be done to understand what messages will be perceived as funny by different population groups. Testing messages with audiences before using them can help ensure messages are funny.


Ad Council, binge drinking, humor, persuasion, positive emotion


xiii, 272 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 258-272).


Copyright © 2017 Amy Clare Schumacher