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:

I’ll happily confess to being one of King’s "constant readers." I love his stuff. His 1987 novel IT was a damn scary book. In the villain, a demonic clown named Pennywise, King managed to capture the strange, lonely, terrifying essence that the image of the clown had projected to many people throughout the years. The performance of Pennywise the clown by Tim Curry in the 1990 mini-series effectively scared the hell out of viewers across the world. This clown isn’t going to give you candy. It’s going to eat you.

And let’s not forget Killer Klowns from Outer Space:

If you’ve not seen this movie, do yourself a favor—check it out. It’s ridiculously fun. Buckets-o’-blood. Stupid plot. Absolutely everything that a B-movie aspires to. A true classic.

The thing is that these images work retroactively. Viewers/consumers who were aware of some lingering uneasiness around clowns had their skulls opened up and they became aware of something akin to pure terror. A few people who were as scared of clowns as a dumbass like me pivoted the situation from a subtle issue to a full-blown s**t-storm of GAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!!

Put simply, what had just a short time before been a simple distraction had become something that I, to this day, suffer: Coulrophobia.

During the 1980s, Ronald and The Burger King maintained something of a bastion of innocence for clowns. In other words, consumers/viewers were not watching them eat people. But the "innocence" of the clown personage paid a price in the form of drugged out, trippy ad campaigns that—while appealing to kids—couldn’t hide the possible psychedelic activities that the writers were indulging in back in the 1970s. It’s possible that Sid & Marty Kroft’s crazy H.R. Pufnstufenjoyed the same creative influences...

Um... it’s more than possible. Many years ago I went camping and had... well, let’s just say it was a fungus... and I saw stuff like that... but with bright lights and amplified sound. Seein’ that H.R. Pufnstuf footage for the first time in 20 years brings back some odd memories... not all from childhood.

It’s not gonna be hard to see the resemblance here.


Burger King:

These bizarre commercials continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. If I recall correctly, Burger King even dropped His Majesty as a mascot for a while.

But he returned. And when he did, it was in a manner that Stephen King would love.

Part 2 coming soon!

Button photo courtesy of lu lu via Flickr Commons.