Public Relations Blog

Clowns in Greenville: Is it a publicity stunt, or the real thing?

Pennywise IT publicity stunt
The OG Pennywise the Clown, Stuff of Nightmares.

This week, news outlets started writing articles about clowns that have been hanging around an apartment complex in Greenville, SC, trying to lure children into the woods with money (New York Times has a great, hair-raising story about it). Some of the initial thoughts that popped into my head were: Is this real? Is this a publicity stunt? If it is fake, this is crazy. If it’s real, I am disturbed.

The first version of Stephen King’s terrifying movie IT, portrayed in the ‘90s by Tim Curry, has provided me with the life-long fear of clowns. I know that I am not alone in this fear because there is an official phobia for it (coulrophobia). It just so happens that a new version of IT will be released in theaters in 2017. Earlier this summer the studio released a “first look” of the updated Pennywise the Clown.

These clowns that are hanging around Greenville can, according to children, be found in a house back by a pond. That immediately made me think of the scene in IT when the one kid goes into the abandoned house and flies out of there on his bike. These clowns that are coming out at night, trying to lure children into the woods, sounds an awful lot like a real-life version of IT. Which makes me wonder, is this a publicity stunt for the new movie?

If it is, it is brilliant. Using a small town in Maine would be too obvious. But a small, up-and-coming Southern town is subtle enough to be extremely creepy. It also reminds people that there is in fact a movie coming out next year about the world’s most infamous and evil clown. If that’s the case, we will see if a viral news story about clowns sneaking around a town, somehow managing to evade the police but not regular civilians, can get people into theaters in 2017. It is nothing if not creative.

Companies have been extremely innovative like this before with a publicity stunt, to the demise of others. In 2007, book publisher Algonquin promoted their book An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by sending letters from a Beatrice Hutchins to book section editors at newspapers, asking for the main book character to burn down Edith Wharton’s house. People were not too thrilled. (Read more from the 2007 review at Washington Post.)

When it comes to using clowns to scare people, even if it is clever, it is also wrong in so many ways. There’s the safety of the community: scaring children and pretending their lives are at risk is morally flawed. Who’s to say there won’t be copycats who do in fact want to kidnap children? There’s also the fact that the police are on the case, using their time and resources to investigate. No publicity stunt is worth putting people’s lives at risk or causing fear to an entire city.

And if these clowns that are flashing lasers at night in the woods, hanging around an apartment complex, and waving at women in the streets are real…We’ve just entered a Stephen King novel.