The Fall (and Rise) of Clowns in Advertising: Part 1

Clowns scare me. "Coulrophobia" is the term: extreme fear of clowns.

I don’t think I always felt this way... At some point in my life something happened (probably something that I’m repressing and will carry on to my kids in some horrible Movie-of-the-Week manner).

And I’m not alone. The use of clowns in advertising has changed, possibly due to a shift in social consciousness away from faith in humanity. This is not the same as saying that the past was a more innocent time than the present; we simply have infinitely faster means of distributing information now. As a result, we, as a culture, are more jaded and therefore more wary of those around us.

Let me state this up front: this is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the history of clowns. Nor is it meant to be an all-encompassing exploration into clowns throughout the existence of advertising. It is merely meant to show that the image of the clown has changed... and how it continues to change in the realm of commercials. It’s also meant to be fun.

Let’s call it a rant with examples, shall we?


With that said, let’s take a look at the use of clowns in early ad campaigns. Note how they display a certain amount of naivety... of trust.

See what I mean? The clown is sort’a cute and pudgy. There’s no creepy factor here. Being a cartoon doesn’t hurt, either as a cartoon’s two-dimensional aspect isn’t a threat to us 3-D people, eh?

Well, unless you’re the crazy murdering cartoon from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that is...

The very first appearance of Ronald McDonald is a bit creepy, but still holds on to a level of innocence:

Even the old Burger King ads feel safe. Sort of...

I have to admit that the creepiness level is already on the rise, primarily due to the crack-addict "Shake" character. And while The Burger King doesn’t wear face make-up, it’s safe to say that he falls into the clown arena. He just has a beard and a crown instead of a crazy painted smile.

In the 1980s it became a trend to portray clowns not just as creepy, but as downright monstrous. I blame this partially on the brilliance of Stephen King: