The Bright and Dark Sides of Humorous Response to Online Customer Complaint

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Publication Date


Publication Title

European Journal of Marketing





Displaying a sense of humour provides various interpersonal benefits including reducing tension and promoting conflict resolution, but should a firm use humour in response to publicly viewable online customer complaints after a service failure? The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that a firm’s use of humour in response to negative online consumer reviews has both positive and negative effects on perceptions of corporate image from a customer-as-onlooker perspective.


Three experimental studies are conducted and analysis of variance is used to empirically test the hypotheses.


Although humorous responses have an unfavourable influence on perceived trustworthiness of the firm, they have a favourable influence on perceived excitingness of the firm. The former influence is tied to lower perceived firm sincerity, whereas the latter is tied to higher perceived firm innovativeness and coolness. Furthermore, humour within the customer complaint itself is shown to moderate the influence of humorous responses on perceptions of the firm. Finally, regardless of the type of humour used (i.e. affiliative or aggressive humour) in the humorous response, the positive effect of humorous response remains strong, although aggressive humour further aggravates the negative impact of humorous response on trustworthiness.

Research limitations/implications

The experimental set-up may limit external validity of the study, and the research is limited to the variables examined.

Practical implications

Humorous response is identified as a non-traditional approach to online customer complaints that poses a double-edged sword for managers of service organizations. Firms should avoid using humour in online service recovery if perceptions of trustworthiness are critical or if complaints are written in a neutral tone. However, such responses may be successfully used when a firm wants to position itself as exciting and if complaints are also humorous. Finally, firms are advised to avoid aggressive humour.


The present research represents one of the few studies in marketing to examine the potential of injecting humour into complaint management and service recovery. In addition, this study considers the consumer-as-onlooker perspective inherent in social media.


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