Parody of Kmart ad shows the perils of viral marketing

Kmart is distancing itself from a parody of its viral "Ship My Pants" ad on YouTube that many are saying goes too far, crossing the line from edgy to racist. 

The mass merchandise retailer took to Twitter to say it had nothing to do with the parody because so many people thought it was a real Kmart ad. Instead, it was the work of a California-based comedy troupe you've probably never heard of, and probably don't need to hear about, The Gunfordmay. But while the "Ship My Pants" ad represents one of the cleverest things Kmart has done in a while, the company released the ad at a time when viral is the new popular, irony is the new sophistication, and pushing the envelope has become the way to get attention. This means that viral marketing comes with its share of hazards.

"Ship My Pants," which itself relies on viral marketing and a tongue-in-cheek punchline, is fair game for parody, just as any other ad out there would be. Unfortunately, that also applies to a bunch of privileged young adults who find humor in puns referencing slavery and damaging stereotypes about blacks, untethered from any sincere social commentary, but in their view somehow defensible because they're "ironic."

It's impossible to know exactly what was going through the head of members of the group, but it's obvious that they saw an ad that pushed the envelope, and they decided to push it even further. Such is the nature of a popular culture in which comedians, filmmakers, artists and marketers are challenged to be as edgy as possible.

For its part, Kmart has long championed diversity and support for minorities, ranging from policies inclusive of LGBT employees and customers, scholarships for Hispanic students and services for black-owned small businesses.

And Kmart did the right thing in distancing itself from The Gunfordmay's parody, but it's a lesson that every retailer should heed when it attempts to "go viral": Viral marketing, particularly the kind that tests the bounds of good taste, can have marvelous effects when it works and succeeds in its goal of getting people's attention and either making them laugh or at least starting a conversation about the company behind the campaign, but it also makes that company vulnerable to others' attempts to take it too far and into the realm of unfunniness.