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

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.

John Barker
Clever Ads, Promotions and Marketing