Satire: Appealing to Younger Audiences

There’s nothing quite like ending the day with a healthy dose of news satire. A good laugh before bed helps me relax about all the political ineptitude and ridiculousness we hear about on a daily basis.

It’s clear that programs like The Daily Show and now sadly defunct The Colbert Report are wildly popular, especially among young adults. This enthusiasm has prompted much study to determine if political satire is the new way to engage and educate the younger crowd on issues they might otherwise ignore, or whether it’s just providing a good laugh.

Results have been mixed. It seems programs like these are just as likely to educate and persuade as not. A just-published study has delved deeper into the mechanisms of satire and offers insight into how it may actually be able to influence certain populations. Nonprofits can take advantage of this information to appeal to younger audiences.

In At Odds: Laughing and Thinking?,[1] the authors explore the finer mechanisms of political satire by separating out the differing influences of funniness and absorption (becoming highly engaged in the story to the point of being ignorant of surroundings). In their experiment that exposed a range of ages to serious and satirical news stories, Boukes et al. found that participants who were more absorbed in the story were more likely to be persuaded in the intended direction, while those who found the story funnier were less likely to be persuaded.

This is difficult to tease out since humor increases absorption. But apparently the trick is to not make the story too funny, which then makes it less credible and influential. The effect was particularly strong among those aged 18-28 years for one condition and between 18-35 years for another condition.

So how can nonprofits use this information to their advantage? While the study and many like it focus on satirical news programs, it is likely that the effects of satire could translate into other types of messaging. The study authors suggest the following:

  1. Young adults (between 18-30) tend to be more interested in satire than straight facts. So, if this is your target audience and your issue is conducive to satire, satire may be quite influential.
  2. Make sure there is also an element of seriousness to the message, so that it is clear that it is not only a joke.

Striking this equilibrium may just be the magic combination that both engages and educates an often hard-to-reach audience.  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver seems a nice balance of the two. I suggest a healthy dose of this program before creating your next satirical message, a hopefully enjoyable assignment. While I’m not suggesting you produce an entire program, you can incorporate satire into a tweet or Facebook post fairly easily. It may well be the thing that gets people to click your link or make your post go viral. What examples have you seen of good satirical nonprofit posts?

Excuse me now while I tune in to YouTube for a relaxing evening of humor and education.

[1] Boukes, M., Boomgaarden, H. G., Moorman, M., & de Vreese, C. H. (2015). At odds: Laughing and thinking? The appreciation, processing, and persuasiveness of political satire. Journal of Communication, 65(5), 721–744. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12173