Kmart's "Ship My Pants" Ad: Viral Genius or Epic Brand Fail?

Editor's Note: This post was also featured on Ragan's PR Daily and CommPRO.Biz

By every metric of our social media marketing age, the Kmart 35-second spot, "Ship My Pants," is a monster success – more than 15 million views of the scatological sensation on YouTube, with 64,423 likes and 13,000 YouTube comments for an online spot that shows shoppers exulting that they can finally "ship" their pants.

Here's the spot in all of its glory:

With a staggering 1,689,000 Facebook shares and 31,684 Twitter shares, many using the branded #ShipMyPants hashtag, "Ship My Pants" is now the 37th most shared ad of all time, says tracking service Unruly Media. And this was all before any TV broadcast of the Kmart spot. Holy ship, what’s not to love?

Immaculately cast, scripted and directed, "Ship My Pants" was also well-optimized on YouTube with a direct link to Kmart's Web page. Public relations outreach was managed flawlessly, with Kmart's ad featured in a Today show segment, along with mentions in Forbes, CNN, ABC News and USA Today. Yes, I laughed uproariously when I first saw it, and shared "Ship My Pants"with friends who get fiendish pleasure out of viral vulgarity. Best of all, the conservative protest group One Million Moms demanded that Kmart take the ad "off the air immediately" (even though it’s technically not yet on the air at all), calling the retailer’s spot "disgusting" and "ridiculous." Given the ire of One Million Moms, I figure Kmart must be doing something right.

Bravo to Kmart's Ad Agency

I'm happy for ad agency Draftfcb Chicago, which is going to collect gold awards by the swollen bagful and deservedly so. The agency was charged with the nearly impossible task of creating a spot that would get consumers talking about Ship Your Way home service when items weren’t available in a Kmart store.

Think about that for a moment: Kmart wanted its agency to promote, in Kmart's words, "an innovative service offering: order in store and ship it home. Essentially, that means if Kmart’s stores disappoint a brick-and-mortar customer with out-of-stock merchandise, the consumer can still give Kmart their money and the product will be shipped to them – as if they had just gone online in the first place. Given that original marketing challenge, agency Draftfcb should get a Clio, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Nobel Prize for concocting a video that transforms Kmart’s failure to keep a product in stock into the subject of the most talked-about retail YouTube clip of the season.

But, the burning, itching question remains: Is associating your retail brand with rectal incontinence a wise marketing strategy? Will millions of social shares of an online spot translate into actual Web traffic and sales revenue? And, most importantly, will Kmart’s target audience of Martha Stewart-loving, discount-hungry Moms be more likely to shop Kmart because of a video that equates the chain's 1,300 or so stores with uncontrollable bodily functions?

Differentiating the Kmart Brand 

Kmart is putting a proud face on their excremental phenomenon. "The outpouring of affection, the goodwill and the laughter that we got internally told us we really had something here," said Kmart VP-Chief Marketing Officer Andrew Stein in Time magazine. The quote reminds me of the Groucho Marx line: "I think you have something here, and I’ll wait outside until you clean it up." All of us must empathize with the risks taken in releasing "Ship My Pants" by Kmart, which has struggled to differentiate itself against the more vibrant Target and Wal-Mart superstores.

You know your brand is knocking on heaven's door when bloggers offer lessons to other companies on "how to avoid being the next Kmart." In addition, AdAge quotes a retail consultant in its story "How Kmart Lost the Attention of Discount Shoppers," as calling Kmart “a slow-motion train wreck.”

For the right brand, bawdy humor can be perfectly appropriate. For years, marketers have embraced sexual double entendre to sell everything from beer and domain name registration (say hello to Go Daddy's Danika Patrick and Bar Rafaeli) to barbecue sauce (Exhibit A: there are real-world products being marketed today as Colon Blow Hot Sauce.)

But with "Ship My Pants," a squeaky-clean, family-friendly retail brand that has been built upon Martha Stewart's middle American values seems desperate – frantic even – to embrace the brand stylings of shock jock Howard Stern.


Whether any TV spot could reverse Kmart's slide and pull shoppers away from and won’t be known for some time, and surely it's vital for Kmart to improve its customer service and end its delays in upgrading their drab in-store experience. "The new ‘Ship My Pants' ad isn't just a cheeky commercial," says reporter Josh Sanburn of Time, who adds that Kmart’s stores "look awful," which may have contributed to same-store sales dropping by 3.7% last year as Kmart closed nearly 100 of its stores. The "Ship My Pants" spot, concludes Sanburn, is "a campaign to steer shoppers away from Kmart’s hopeless, poorly stocked physical stores, toward the one area where the company thinks it can grow: web sales."

Final Thoughts

A brand's reputation is a fragile and precious thing and, at Maccabee, we take Brand Strategy seriously. I haven't snacked on a Frito-Lay chip since 1998, when the company infamously introduced chips fried in olestra, which had a side effect involving loose stool. And I’m unlikely to dine at Chick-fil-A, since that restaurant chain soiled its brand by going public with its anti-gay advocacy (see my thoughts on that here).

Until I saw "Ship My Pants" this week, I associated the Kmart brand with its vintage Blue Light Specials, the classic tagline, "Attention Kmart Shoppers" and, more recently, its savvy employment of actress/spokeswoman Sofia Vergara to reach Hispanic consumers. It gives me no pleasure to predict that business schools will be studying "Ship My Pants" for decades, recalling the month in 2013 when Kmart's marketing strategists "jumped the shark" and, incredibly, ran a spot which ensured that consumers would forever associate their $15 billion brand with gastrointestinal distress.


Image Source: CBS Atlanta

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Brand Strategy

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