The benign violation theory in marketing

In the previous blog, we have a chance to discuss the working mechanism of humor on our brain and the possible effects it can generate through the case study of Wendy. But is the way humor works all we are curious about? Let’s dig a little deeper to find out about the origin of humor and the tip to crack an effective joke.


If you go online and type the word “humor”, you can see multiple results pop up trying to define it. It is hard to have a comprehensive idea of what humor is. We can acknowledge humor from examining its stimulus property or in term of perceptual response of audience (Sternthal & Craig, 1973). In general, it can be defined as “a psychological state characterized by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh” (McGraw & Warren, 2010)


In the past century, many researches were conducted in an attempt to thoroughly understand the origin of humor. A number of theories and hypothesis were developed, but most of which showed many flaws. For example, the three general theories about humor including relief theory (Freud, 1928), superiority (Gruner, 1997) and incongruous theory (Suls, 1972) are supposed to be able to explain all sense of humor. However, it was eventually discovered that these hypothesis can only be applied on certain type of humor that they focus on. More important, these theories assume that humor arises from negative factors like tension or tragedy, which does not always ring true.

For instance, when a person humiliates others or when his/her beloved one dies, it would set the precedent for humor to occur (according to superiority and incongruous theory), but I do not think anyone could find it funny in such context. There are other different theories which attempt to explain humor from a narrower view as jokes, sexual selection or defense mechanism.

Decades pass and researchers are still coming up with new theories. One of the most interesting and contemporary concepts was the benign violation theory proposed by Dr. Peter McGraw and Dr. Caleb Warren from the University of Colorado. This theory suggests three mandatory conditions for humor to occur: the benign, the violation of normal norm, and both must happen simultaneously.

To get a better understanding of this theory, let’s take a look at the example from PooPourri . This company is famous for its toilet spray that removes all embarrassing odor and guarantee that no one realizes that you have been to the WC. The idea of the product is excellent but what is more genius is their commercial script. On September 9th 2013, they released their first video called “Girls don’t poop” starring a Scottish actress in a beautiful blue dress, looking all elegant and classic while she sit on a toilet.  This video quickly became a sensation and has received 39 million views up until now.

2.1 The Benign

The benign refers to a harmless situation, in which consumers feel safe. There are certain ways to make a violation benign, for example if one do not hold a strong belief on something, they are not likely to be offended if a violation takes place. In the odor-erased spray video, the audience do not feel threaten or uncomfortable when “pooping” is mentioned because deep down, they do not strictly think that talking about poop in public is unacceptable. Of course, to people who are sensitive about such matter, they might find this uncomfortable.

2.2 The violation

A violation is something that breaks the general rule of how thing “should turn out to be”. Violation can take several forms, ranging from physical, moral to social norm. The violation in the commercial is obvious. The female actress is talking about pooping and how the smell becomes such a nuisance to woman. Even though she presents it in a very graceful way, it is still shocking since clearly, defecating process is not a pleasant topic in everyday conversation. We normally associate pooping with something private and unhygienic, but PooPourri made it such an enjoyable experience. I do not know about you but I definitely want to get one of their products just seeing the ad.

2.3 Simultaneously events

This phrase basically suggests that a violation to a widely-accepted concept should arouse humor, as long as people do not feel that it is a threat. The PooPourri commercial clearly violates the common norm that pooping is something we do not expected to be said out loud. However, audiences do not take this as an offense because they are not really intimidated by the idea. Indeed, the contrast of the image of a girl looking all elegant with a gentle tone while talking so eagerly about pooping really do result in a twisted sense of humor. Apparently the fan loved it and this marketing effort became a huge success.


All in all, the benign violation theory is a practical tool that can be applied to explain most funny marketing campaign. It is also a good reference for marketers if they want to make use of humor element in TV, social media or any type of platform. As far as I am concerned, using humor in marketing is a clever move but it is also risky trying to monitor consumer feeling with humor. Most importantly, one should always be aware of the thin line between violation and threat. Proper violation will do you good, but without caution, a minor change can make the result out of control, especially when sensitive issues like politics or races are put on the table.


Freud, S. (1928). Humor. International Journal of Psychoanalysis,
9, 1–6

Gruner, C. (1997). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of
why we laugh
. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

McGraw, A. P., & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological Science, 21, 1141-1149.

Peppers, Margot (2013), “How do you make the world believe your poop doesn’t stink? Poo-Pourri’: One VERY proper Brit’s hilarious turn in ‘before-you-go’ bathroom spray ad”, (accessed November 30th 2017), [available at]

Sternthal, Brian and Samuel Craig (1973), “Humor in Advertising,”Journal of Marketing, 37(4),12-18

Suls, J. (1972). A two-stage model for the appreciation of jokes and
cartoons: An information-processing analysis. In J.H. Goldstein &
P.E. McGhee (Eds.), The psychology of humor: Theoretical perspectives and empirical issues (pp. 81–100). New York: Academic Press.

T.L. Stanley(2016), “Poo-Pourri Drops a Historic New Ad, as the Poop Wars With Squatty Potty Heat Up”, (accessed 30th 2017), [available at

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