Kmart’s ‘Ship My Pants’ ad: Genius or epic fail?

The commercial has become the 37th most shared ad of all time. But what’s it really doing for the brand?

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

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, according to 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 “Todayshow segment, along with mentions in Forbes and USA Today, and on CNN and ABC News.

I laughed uproariously when I first saw it, and shared “Ship My Pants” with friends who get fiendish pleasure out of viral vulgarity. 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.

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? Most important, will Kmart’s target audience of Martha Stewart-loving, discount-hungry moms be more likely to shop at Kmart because of a video that equates the chain’s 1,300 or so stores with uncontrolled bodily functions?

Differentiating the Kmart brand

Kmart is putting a proud face on their excremental phenomenon.

“The outpouring of affection, the good will 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 Danica 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 Target.com and Walmart.com 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 percent last year as Kmart closed nearly 100 of its locations. 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

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 give 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.

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

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Topics: PR

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