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The Pros and (Mostly) Cons of Cracking Wise in Online Job Ads

The use of humor in job listings posted on the Internet can grab people’s attention, but it may turn them off to the actual job and company being advertised.

Bottom Line: The use of humor in job listings posted on the Internet can grab people’s attention, but it may turn them off to the actual job and company being advertised.

In just a couple of decades, the Web has revolutionized how companies recruit new employees and how job seekers apply for openings. And over the past few years, the hunt has grown even more efficient and refined. Gone are the days when hopeful job seekers posted their resumes to the Internet and crossed their fingers, or blindly emailed human resources managers. Today, a host of middleman companies offer sophisticated recruitment services online, allowing far-flung companies and potential hires to connect and interact — and, in an ideal world, find the perfect fit.

The rise of digital recruiting has gone hand-in-hand with the surge in overall digital advertising. The online ad space has encouraged companies to use low-budget media and unconventional approaches when targeting consumers. Further, funny commercials and marketing campaigns are also common in the digital space because the technique has been shown to have a broad appeal, causing people to pay more attention to an ad, remember it better, and, most important, develop positive attitudes toward the brand. So with the use of comedy in consumer-targeted online ads on the rise, and often a centerpiece of viral campaigns aimed at younger people, it stands to reason that humor would have also spilled over into recruitment postings.

Anecdotal evidence suggests being funny in a job ad can be valuable. For example, in 2012, a Finnish mining company posted an online ad for an export manager that stated the firm was looking for “a lazy, good-for-nothing bum.” At the time, the average number of clicks for an online posting was about 1,000; this ad garnered more than 12,000. Traffic to the firm’s website also increased significantly in the wake of the ad, which generated more than 100 job applications for the relatively small firm in a niche market.

But the Finns’ cheekiness is an exception. When targeting prospective hires online, companies have chosen to play it much more conservatively. Is this a good idea? Or are companies missing out on an opportunity?

The authors of a new study sought to discover what effects humor had on Internet job postings. The study, which may be the first of its kind, examined the three different types of contemporary humor that have been most widely associated with advertising to see how they influenced a potential applicant’s feelings toward a company, a position, and the manager who placed the ad.

The first type of humor is based on incongruity resolution. This occurs when a consumer has to process a surprise or seeming inconsistency in an ad. Think of an anthropomorphized animal or inanimate object that behaves with human characteristics — “Ha, it’s a bear drinking a soda!” The second kind involves self-deprecatory nonsense, when the subject of an ad behaves in a silly way, makes funny faces, or reacts in crazy ways to ludicrous situations. The third type fits with the classic definition of irony: a message that conveys the opposite meaning from the one it’s supposed to be giving. Sarcasm often plays into this more intellectual type of appeal, which, for all its potential to backfire, is heavily used my marketers.

The authors recruited 71 undergraduate students in economics, software engineering, and healthcare — a demographic particularly interested in, and targeted by, online ads. The participants evaluated ads from a fictitious high-tech startup firm in the e-health sector. (The company was fictitious so that participants had no prior opinion of its reputation.)

The participants were split into four groups. They all viewed an online job ad that consisted of the usual elements — the company’s name and logo, an introduction to the firm, the requirements for an applicant, what perks the job offers, and the like. A control group assessed only that basic ad; the other groups each evaluated an ad that employed one of the three types of humor in the section that described the company. After viewing their respective job listing, the participants completed a questionnaire that gauged their responses to the ad.

It turns out that opening with a joke isn’t always the best business practice. Overall, the use of humor in online job ads had mostly negative effects on the participants, who reported lower opinions of the posting itself, the company, and the job being advertised than did members of the control group. This was true for all three types of humor, as it was throughout all of the study’s findings. This suggests that it is humor — and not the specific type of humor — that people respond to.

It turns out that opening with a joke isn’t always the best business practice.

But as with all good punchlines, there’s a twist: The humorous content had no effect on the job seekers’ attitude toward the manager who placed the ad, and no bearing on whether they would actually consider applying for the job. In this way, the participants seemed to separate their negative reactions to the lighthearted nature of the ad from their more objective measures of the job itself.

Indeed, there was even one outright positive benefit — at least, on the surface. Participants who evaluated a humorous posting expressed a higher intention to share the ad, which is no small thing in the social media era, when companies tenaciously compete for visibility online. Previous researchers have observed that humor can increase people’s instinct to share. That said, if people don’t associate the joke with appreciation for the job or the brand, do you want that type of word-of-mouth?

As the authors note, advertisers have traditionally employed humor frequently and with more success in situations involving low, rather than high, involvement from consumers — in other words, humor works when selling products or services that don’t cost much or require serious considerations. Humor can fall flat when used to advertise products or services such as healthcare, financial counseling, legal advice, child care, or auto repair. It could be that job-seeking falls into this high-involvement category, one with great personal relevance, in which humor too often backfires.

Source:  “The Effects of Humour in Online Recruitment Advertising,” by Eeva-Liisa Oikarinen (University of Oulu) and Magnus Söderlund (Stockholm School of Economics), Australasian Marketing Journal, Aug. 2016, no. 24, vol. 3

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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