Do Funny Consumer Complaints Lead To Better Results Or Just Hurt Your Case?

A bad consumer experience can result in a lot of anger, perhaps even rage, toward the offender. For some people, the healthiest way to direct that fury is to have a sense of humor about what happened while still trying to get across the message that they were wronged. While slapping an ironic grin on your vitriol might preempt your punching the wall (or someone else) in frustration, is it any more effective than a dry and humorless complaint?

That’s the question asked by researchers from the University of Colorado and Texas A&M University in a study recently published in the the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers wanted to see whether humorous complaints garnered more attention than others and whether that attention led to a better resolution or whether the use of humor might result in what they describe as a “benign violation,” where the complainer gives a false impression that all is okay because they are cracking jokes about it.


The first part of the study was to look at available review data provided by Yelp, which allows users to rate user-generated reviews as helpful, funny, cool, useful, etc.

Since humor is often associated with mockery, it’s perhaps not surprising that is was significantly more likely for a 1- or 2-star Yelp review to be labeled “funny” by users than for 4- and 5-star reviews.


For the second part of their research, the authors looked at what happened when people posted complaints and praise with varying degrees of humor on Facebook.

Subjects, all self-identifying regular Facebook users, were asked to look through their timelines and review their most recent posts where they shared a complaint, and their most recent bit of published praise.

People who made humorous complaints were often intending to entertain (57%) rather than warn others (6%), according to the study. While many more non-humorous complaints were intended as warnings (27%), with only 8% seeking to entertain their Facebook pals with their misery.

Separately, research assistants were asked to read these Facebook posts and determine whether they perceived them to be intentionally humorous.

In the end, they found that humor is perceived more frequently in complaints than in praise, and that humor may have a neutering effect on both — making complaints seem more positive and praise more negative.


According to the study, further research on humorous Facebook complaints found that they received more of a response than non-humorous gripes and that those who read these complaints were more likely to remember them than they were with deadly serious complaints.

The question still facing the researchers at this point was whether the additional attention and affection for humorous complaints resulted in any sort of positive resolution for the complainer.


Having dealt with many media reps for many companies, I’ve yet to see any consistent response to humor in complaints.

“Well he can’t be all that shaken up if he’s making light of the problem,” say some reps when hearing from Consumerist readers with a sense of humor. But other reps will see through the poison-pen jokes and realize there is a serious problem that needs to be fixed. One rep will tell you that a customer with a sense of humor is easier to deal with while another will say that same customer is a pain in the rear-end for the same reason.

But that’s just my anecdotal take on things after five years of working for Consumerist. It’s not science.

To try to get some sort of scientific understanding of how businesses might respond to humor, the researchers presented a group of college students two negative restaurant customer scenarios: finding a hair in your pasta, or being served an overcooked steak. The students were then asked to write up two complaints — one humorous, one non-humorous — for their particular case.

These comments were then shown to professionals who were asked to take the perspective of a restaurant manager who is “checking the Internet to see what customers are saying” about their business on Facebook.

Each of the subjects looked at pairs of humorous/non-humorous complaints written by the same student though they did not know that or that the reviews were deliberately funny/unfunny. They were then asked which complaint would take higher priority.

In the end, only 40% of subjects chose the funny complaint as the one that took priority.

“Humor is an effective way for complainers to get attention,” concluded the researchers. “However, humor doesn’t always benefit complainers. Consumers who want others to right a wrong or simply offer social support would benefit from complaining in a more serious manner.”

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