Ad Rant: Walmart plays on fears of a clown

Walmart has been called many things, but "cool" was not among them -- until the retail giant unveiled its new clown commercial during Sunday's NFL playoffs. Since then, the clown ad has taken the Internet by storm. Last we checked, it was holding steady at No. 2 on the Viral Video Chart.

If this keeps up, Walmart will be in danger of losing its reputation as the Spawn of Satan.

In case you are the last person who has not seen this ad for inexpensive party decorations, I won't spoil the joke. Suffice it to say that the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who find it hilarious, and those who don't.

Personally, I'm in the first camp. I scientifically tested my initial reaction by replaying the ad again and again. The results are in: yup, it's funny! My question now is: What will the formerly square and boring Walmart do with its newly hip status?

Previously, Walmart was known for stoking the ire of labor unions, environment lovers and women's groups. It was said to kill mom-and-pop stores by underpricing to the point where American consumers now expect to pay no more than pennies for just about anything that can be put in a non-biodegradable plastic bag and hauled home. When you thought of Walmart, you thought of how it used to lock employees in overnight.

All that could change with the clown ad, a 30-second bit of irreverence in which the mother of a birthday girl explains to another parent that by buying party decorations at Walmart, "we even saved enough money for the, um ... clown outfit."

Between "um" and "clown outfit," Daddy appears in full circus-clown regalia to provide entertainment of a wholly unintended nature.

A lot of why it's funny is because you don't expect this sort of absurdist humor from something as bland and lowest-common-denominator-ish as a big-box store. The content is a delicious mismatch with what the ad purports to be selling: crepe-paper streamers and low-end party favors. When was the last time Walmart surprised us?

The clown ad spurred me to do something I have never done in my life: I actually went on Walmart's site. Somehow, I had hoped it would try to ride the wave of its viral clown while it lasts. A site search under "clown" yielded DVDs such as the slasher pic Dead Clowns and a CD of Sarah Vaughan singing Send in the Clowns. No matter what keyword I typed in ("party," "decoration," "costume"), I could not find a clown costume to buy.

Don't they get it? If you're going to go "cool," you've gotta deliver the goods. They should be selling that clown outfit! Think of all the YouTube rip-offs it would spawn!

In any case, it's a strange direction for Walmart to take. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that the retailer attracts 100 million customers a week, yet this ad targets the kind of person who wouldn't be caught dead shopping there. At least give those potential new customers the clown outfit to buy!

Otherwise, why risk turning off legions of Walmart's stalwarts -- the wholesome, fresh-faced families who will see this ad and come down with coulrophobia, a fear of clowns. Worse, they could develop a case of "malWal," an immediate aversion to shopping at Walmart.
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