When a speaker steps on stage and discusses hurling, you know you’re in for a treat. Fortunately for his audience, HuRL is the acronym for the Humor Research Lab. Dr. Peter McGraw brings behavioral science and principals of marketing together to dig deep into how humor affects consumer judgment, emotion, and choice. And he brought his top insights to #CMC18!

Love or Hate?

Lukewarm or neutral statements may seem like a good idea. I mean, who wants to tick off their audience from the start? The problem is that research shows otherwise. When people experience strong feelings of love or hate, it creates a buzz around your product or brand that gets your audience’s attention. Dr. McGraw calls this concept the Benign Violation Theory.

Benign Violation Theory

Tickling is one of the examples McGraw describes to which most of us can relate. Technically, it doesn’t hurt us, but it definitely violates our space. Play fighting does the same thing. People generally laugh throughout both types of interactions as long as the perceived violations are benign.

Problems occur when the violation crosses a line. During a “tickle attack,” the tide turns when you’re screaming stop and the offending party keeps going. It becomes a violation and loses the benign aspect. Play fighting is fun until it either turns lame or too aggressive. Once a situation becomes a malign violation, any chance to capture humor is lost.

How does this impact SEO?

As the world becomes ever more connected online, the use of humor has evolved. Marketers now turn to insults and sarcasm to elicit benign violations and grab their audience’s attention. Over the last few decades, behaviors and words/phrases that go against social, cultural, linguistic, and even moral norms without crossing the line to malignant make just the kind of impact marketers want.

A violation must be benign in order to attract your audience. McGraw points out that using a flip and reverse strategy can even pay off, for example, “dumb phone” as opposed to smartphone will pique curiosity. To improve SEO, the marketing team, from content creators to marketing execs, need to be aware of how they can snag attention with benign violations without crossing the line and driving people away.

SEO: More than just keywords

PPC ads work by drawing the audience to what you offer. If you employ humor in a way that makes someone relate or chuckle, you are likely to get that sought after click. Connecting social media pages to the main website gives you more opportunities to use humor and attract visitors organically. Toss a bit of off-color humor into your email campaign tagline so people will actually open it. Humor that pushes the boundaries works.


Elizabeth B is a curator of words whether on the page or in the conference room. She spent most of her adult life in public education fighting for developmentally appropriate education as a classroom teacher and reading specialist. She is well-versed in compiling data and creating special reports for various educational institutions.