When Going Viral Goes Wrong

Dec 13, 2013

Having an ad go viral may be the dream of ad managers and their agencies, but being viewed a gazillion times on YouTube and elsewhere is no guarantee that views will turn into sales. A case in point is Kmart, which has produced not just one, but three videos that have gone viral this year.

The first of three, the chain’s "Ship My Pants" spot, was the subject of a RetailWire discussion in April. At the time, sentiment was split on how consumers would view Kmart and whether it would move them to shop in the chain’s stores or on its website. In a poll with the story, 45 percent said they believed the commercial would have a "very" or "somewhat positive" effect on consumers’ perceptions of the chain, while 17 percent believed consumers would view Kmart more negatively. Thirty-five percent said the spot would not have any effect, positively or negatively, on people’s perceptions.

While many thought the ad would help create buzz for Kmart, many also said the reality of run-down stores and the other ills that affect the company would reinforce the adage that the worst thing that can happen to a bad product is great advertising.

James Tenser, principal, VSN Strategies and a RetailWire BrainTrust panelist, wrote: "Because I’m afflicted with a lowbrow sense of humor, this ad made me chuckle a little. Once I thought about it further, however, the conclusion was inescapable: I ain’t buyin’ that ship."

Encouraged by the viral nature of "Ship My Pants" which got more than 20 million views on YouTube, Kmart followed with "Big Gas Savings" (six million views) and "Show Your Joe" (15 million views). Despite the popularity of the spots, Kmart’s sales continue to flounder. As an article on Mashable points out, same-store sales for both the second and third quarters were down 2.1 percent for the chain.

"I almost think that the ads are hurting them," Brian Sozzi, chief equities strategist at Belus Capital Advisors, told Mashable. "The ads suggest it’s back, but when you walk into the stores, it’s the same old thing. It’s a bait and switch."

Do you think that a commercial going viral can actually wind up hurting a retailer or brand? Do you think that is or isn’t the case with the viral videos Kmart produced in 2013?

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21 Comments on "When Going Viral Goes Wrong"

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Bob Phibbs

Cutting-edge “cool” ads that mirror the culture or customer experience enhance, not hurt. Think the Mac Guy ads of the mid 2000s. It was a thru-line of cool and fun.

Then consider how it is reported Eddie Lampert has already relinquished majority control of Sears; now, Lampert is fighting to retain the remainder of his investment business.

Kmart’s, Sears’ and Lampert’s ship has sailed in many ways….

Ken Lonyai

It seems unlikely that a commercial that went viral would hurt a brand, unless it went viral because it was blatantly bad or ill-construed – a rare scenario. An off color quote from a C-level exec going viral could do it though.

In Kmart’s case, the ad concept was probably a lucky stab in the dark that had entertainment value, but didn’t connect shoppers to the brand powerfully enough to plug enough holes in the retailer’s sinking ship.

Max Goldberg

The three videos made people think about Kmart, which is good. Kmart certainly could use being top of mind. But Kmart did nothing to bring their stores in line with the message. There was nothing new in-store. Same look, same feel. The spots were fun. Kmart stores are not fun.

Management needs to take a holistic approach to brand messaging. What’s being told to consumers needs to be reflected in-store. Somebody at Kmart green-lit a very funny campaign, but did nothing to reflect that humor in-store. The result is a disappointing experience.

Dr. Stephen Needel

The only way a commercial can hurt going viral is if the shopping experience is bad – the point the earlier discussion made. Advertising can’t fix everything. We have two Kmarts near me and they’re very nice, although customer service could use an upgrade. I understand, though, that there are lots of bad Kmarts out there. Cool videos aren’t going to help if the stores are bad.

Liz Crawford

The fact that Kmart’s ads went viral just tells me that they have a great agency…and unfortunately, they haven’t upped their operations to keep pace.

However, the ads themselves aren’t hurting the brand. If anything, they are building a new kind of brand equity. The profitability from this new equity is not being realized from its current operations. Instead, Kmart will need to re-imagine its offering to cash in on its recent “good will” assets.

David Livingston
3 years 9 months ago

I really don’t see how Kmart’s brand could be damaged further. These commercials, if they are hurting Kmart, in my opinion, it’s minimal. It’s the class clown acting up again. Consumers will simply continue not taking Kmart seriously.

James Tenser

The Kmart ads are fun to watch once or twice, but there’s little persuasive selling message happening.

I’d like to turn the question around: Did Kmart’s generally lackluster performance and failing reputation among consumers fuel greater viewership?

Maybe its agency Draftfcb deserves this year’s Cleo award for viral irony.

J. Peter Deeb

Any time the reality does not live up to the promise, a retailer hurts their brand and ultimately their business. Existing customers may resent the obvious disparity and many of the new customers the ads attract may never get over the disappointment and be lost forever.

I am amazed that the ads showing the delicious sandwiches piled high with fresh ingredients that fast food places run that NEVER show up in store don’t negatively affect their sales. I guess if all customers are used to being disappointed, the playing field is equal! In the case of Kmart, there are other choices that deliver a better in-store experience.

Roger Saunders

Any time a company cannot deliver on the promise of an advertisement – that includes the overall experience that consumers have with their relationship with the retailer – the advertisement has a great potential to fail.

Kmart’s low-brow humor in viral messages is merely reminding consumers why they have been so disappointed by the execution of other expectations they may have. Quality, selection, location, service, store appearance, etc.

Humor is one of the greatest treasures of human beings, as we all can potentially share in it. If the humor makes us feel like we are the “butt” of the joke by taking action, watch out for the backfire.

Robert DiPietro

I think getting a commercial to go viral has little brand influence, one way or the other. I’m not sure of the exact demographic of the jingle bell viral video viewer, but I can tell you my young kids both think its hilarious and have no clue what it is an ad for, or who the retailer is.

Alan Gross
Alan Gross
3 years 9 months ago

I think if you look at the overwhelmingly positive reactions to these ads based on likes on YouTube, it’s hard for me to understand how you can believe they are hurting the brand. They are getting attention and bringing Kmart back into the conversation in a predominantly positive way. No, they can’t sweep the stores and paint the walls. But, that’s not their objective.

And to use total format sales as a barometer of their impact seems unfair given the vastness of categories in which they compete. The question is, did sales increase for the offerings being promoted in the videos? My guess is they did.

To go viral you have to be willing to be provocative in some way and that’s almost always going to bring out a certain segment of “the offended.” Kudos to Kmart for having the courage to take a risk, and make many of us laugh in the process.

gordon arnold

I have faith in the opinion that advertising should stimulate interest in the messenger and not the message. Kmart’s sales and advertising are supporting this opinion very well.

Lee Kent

A campaign such as this needs to tell a story about the brand. This one did not! Hey, didn’t I already say that today? Hee hee….

Shep Hyken

Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

The company determines what they want from their marketing and advertising. Sometimes it is just recognition. Sometimes there is a call to action; getting a customer to action.

Putting something on YouTube is usually about brand recognition. Kmart had great success with their viral video. Recently WestJet had their Christmas video go viral. The question with any successful advertising, marketing, or brand recognition campaign is if the company is capable and ready for the success.

Mel Kleiman

Remember David Ogilvy’s famous quote: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” Kmart is just enforcing that lesson.

Lee Peterson

Reminds me of when Target started doing those fabulous ads a few years back, then you went into the stores and it was business as usual. You can try to say that you’re “cool” by using the right tools (like YouTube), but ultimately it’s the customer that determines that with their wallets.

Target has since snapped their in-store experience closer to where their awesome ads are, can Kmart? Drum roll … no way – long, long way to go.

Craig Sundstrom

Doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t – or perhaps it’s can’t – help (much) either. I have to agree with David: John Wanamaker once complained that “Half my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” In the case of Kmart, it’s both halves.

Matthew Keylock
Matthew Keylock
3 years 9 months ago

The other angle to consider is how this might skew marketing mix results and the consequences of this on internal incentives and resulting investment allocations. There could be a number of longer-term unintended consequences … maybe even for the agency!

Vahe Katros

Sounds like with Kmart, it’s the same old shirt.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
3 years 9 months ago

The videos do nothing to hurt or help Kmart. They only serve to entertain and add to the ubiquitous conversations about Kmart should have closed long ago. You can’t blame the marketing department for using its talent to create entertaining vids, even when they surely know they do not represent in any way the shopping experience in-store. Maybe it will get the marketing team a better job elsewhere….

Jerry Gelsomino

It depends on the strategy and theme of the commercial. There are great examples of viral ads that have done well in getting attention and increasing sales.


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