Tackling crises with laughter

Shubin Yu, Yi Xiao

What is the best way to communicate a crisis?

In times of crisis, choosing the right communication strategy is key. Usually, serious issues are addressed in serious manners. But what happens if we turn the situation upside down, and instead attempt tackling crises with humour?

The potential of humour

Making your target group laugh can be a powerful strategy across contexts. Humorously framed public health campaigns targeting cancer prevention has helped reduce anxiety about self-exams, and can therefore increase early cancer detection.

Moreover, marketing research reveal that using humour in advertising makes consumers perceive brands in a more favourable light. And it doesn’t end there. Studies show that using humour in communicating climate change triggers greater activism intentions than a non-humorous message.

Choosing the perfect topic

However, tickling someone’s funny bone isn’t always the best strategy. Undoubtedly, some topics simply don’t fit being handled in a joking manner, especially when dealing with serious issues where clear and concise communication is important.

A humorous framing may also underplay the graveness of a situation, harming the underlying message or agenda. Still, humour can be highly impactful when used correctly, also in crisis communication.

Choosing the perfect timing

Previous research has shown that the effect of using humour to communicate risks and crisis events varies with crisis severity. This balancing act has recently been further studied by Yi Xiao and Shubin Yu, researchers at respectively Tianjin University and BI Norwegian Business School. They have investigated the effectiveness of a humorous message in communicating social distancing in two phases of crisis severity.

In cases where the crisis severity level is high, one might expect that the acceptance for a humorous framing will be lower. Conversely, if the crisis severity level is low, one would expect individuals to be more open for jokes and wit. Xiao and Yu’s findings support this assumption.

In high severity phases, the funny framing made respondents evaluate the crisis as less severe. This effect is unfortunate in scenarios where the risk threat of a situation needs to be amplified. In a low severity phase however, humorous messages made respondents evaluate the communication source as more likeable. The humorous framing also triggered more engagement from the respondents.

With great power comes great responsibility… and opportunities!

What can we learn from this research?

If you consider using humour, start by evaluating the level of severity of the crisis at hand, before you decide if wittiness and comedy can be an effective communication strategy or not.

If the crisis severity is relatively low or moderate, finding a way to give your target group a chuckle might be a clever move! Humour makes your message come across as memorable and positive, in addition to the added bonus of being more engaging. These are all great elements to possess when communicating a tricky crisis.

This article is written by research assistant Maiken Bergheim.


Xiao, Yi & Yu, Shubin (2022) Using Humor to Promote Social Distancing on Tiktok During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 13 Doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.887744


Published 4. November 2022

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