ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2017, Vol. 49 ›› Issue (4): 526-538.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2017.00526

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Does company’s humor resolve consumer complaining: The match of humor types and relationship norms

ZHU Huawei; ZHANG Yanyan; GONG Xuan   

  1. (Department of Marketing and Tourism Management, Economics and Management School, Wuhan University, Wuhan 430072, China)
  • Received:2016-07-26 Published:2017-04-25 Online:2017-04-25
  • Contact: ZHU Huawei, E-mail:


Complaints document consumers’ dissatisfaction with the products or services, which bring out overwhelmingly detrimental consequences like decreasing purchase intention and even threatening brand loyalty. The proliferation of social media further expands such undesirable communications. Therefore, how to deal with consumers’ complaining has become one of the greatest challenges for companies. Adapted to the entertainment characteristics of social media, companies are increasingly adopting humorous tactics to cope with consumer’ complaints. Previous studies have explored the effects of humor on communication from both cognitive and affective perspectives, these literatures surprisingly achieve no consistent conclusions. To be specific, there are at least two limitations in prior research. One is that most studies make no differentiation on humor design, especially on humor typology. The second is that extant research pays less attention on norms of the relationship between humor communication transmitters and receivers. Contributing new insights to existing work on the topic, the present research tackles this question by investigating the interplay of humor types and relationship norms on brand attitude. To start with, we classify humor responses into self-enhancing humor and self-deprecating humor. By the benign violation theory, these two humor complaining responses may differ in their ability to improve consumer attitude toward the brand. Building on the notion that relationship norms affect consumer behavior in various manners, we put forward that for complaints triggered by lower arousal negative emotions, self-enhancing humor is more effective in improving brand attitude of consumers under communal relationship norm. In contrast, self-deprecating humor has similar effects in improving the brand attitude of consumers under communal and exchange relationship norms. To enrich our understanding on humor, we examine the mediating role of benign appraisal based on benign violation theory. Three studies investigated the hypotheses. In the pretest, we collected 175 sellers’ responses to consumers’ complaining reviews and coded them as humorous and non-humorous. The analysis of secondary data showed that humorous responses to complaints were followed by more supplementary reviews and more positive supplementary reviews from consumers. Based on these results, study 1 aimed to provide a more robust test on the effect of different humor responses to consumer complaints. Results of the 2 humorous responses (self-enhancing humor vs. self-deprecating humor) and 2 non-humorous response (accommodative strategy vs. defensive strategy) indicated that compared to non-humorous responses, humorous responses exhibited more positive effect on consumers’ brand attitude. Study 2 examined the interactive effect of humor types and relationship norms, and also the mediating role of benign appraisal. As expected, the 2 (Humorous responses: self-enhancing humor vs. self-deprecating humor) × 2 (Relationship norms: exchange vs. communal) between-subject design showed that participants in exchange norm condition were more willing to accept self-deprecating humor as response strategies. This is not the case for those in communal norm, for whom the benefits of both self-enhancing humor and self-deprecating humor appear similar. The results further demonstrated that benign appraisal mediated the relationship between humor types and consumers’ brand attitude. The research has some theoretical contributions. First, it applies humor to company’s complaining responses, which sheds new lights on the studies of complaints management. Second, it contributes to the humor theory by differentiating humor into two types: self-enhancing humor and self-deprecating humor. Third, it deepens our understanding on humor communication by exploring the match between humor types and consumer relationship norms, which is a crucial boundary condition. The availability of and exposure to humorous responses has significantly increased with the growth of the Internet and associated digital communication platforms. Besides theoretical contributions aforementioned, our findings also provide useful implications for companies to respond to consumers’ complaining.

Key words: humorous response to complaints, relationship norms, benign appraisal, brand attitude