WalMart “PR” ads may deepen public resentment — but they’re slick!

storefront.jpgWhen the world’s biggest retailer spends millions to tell me how much it loves its employees and communities, my response tends to be an unequivocal, “Bullshit!” You see, we’ve heard this from Big Wally before, but he continues to behave badly. And when you behave badly, I don’t trust you. It’s a lesson from Credibility 101, but WalMart executives apparently cut class that day.

WalMart launched its national TV counter attack yesterday in hopes of deflecting widespread criticism of its policies and operations (You can watch both ads from this link). The ads tout job creation and healthcare for employees. They even invoke the spirit of the late Sam Walton.

Here’s more from an AP wire story:

“It all began with a big dream in a small town, Sam Walton’s dream,” a narrator says, as one ad starts with a black-and-white photo of Sam Walton and a grainy shot of Walton’s first five-and-dime store in what is now the chain’s headquarters town of Bentonville, Ark.

“Sam’s dream. Your neighborhood Wal-Mart,” the ad ends.

Both ads recite key points Wal-Mart has been making in media interviews for months about its corporate record, but the ads take the arguments to the public.

The nation’s largest private employer says it creates tens of thousands of jobs a year, offers employee health plans for as little as $23 a month, saves “the average working family” more than $2,300 a year through its low prices and is a major contributor to local charities, with donations last year totaling more than $245 million.”

Big Wally will tell you he can’t get a fair hearing in the American news media — and that’s probably true. So maybe the strategy of buying TV time to tell its story makes sense. But if there’s an anti-WalMart bias in media, Wally has earned it. Was it not WalMart with PR partner Edelman that gave us the “flog”? And how many other retailers can give rise to the social activism evidenced by WakeUpWalMart and this from FastCompany.com?

Try searching YouTube for WalMart and you’ll find that Big Wally has few friends there, either. I’m particularly enamored with promos for the film “Walmart: The high cost of low prices.” Both series of spots, one starring Bob and Wendy Whitebread , the other WalMart “employee” Betty Johnson, drive home every key message of every anti-WalMart group on the planet. I can see why this is keeping some folks awake at night in Bentonville.

Steven Silvers, labeled a “corporate reputation management expert” in the AP story, thinks Big Wally’s counter attack makes sense.

“If they’re targeted, they have to get their message out there,” Silvers said. “It’s because they have become political fodder. They have to frame the discussion.”

Clearly Silvers didn’t study PR’s symmetrical model, or he wouldn’t be applauding a strategy of counter-punches. Too much of the criticism aimed at Big Wally derives from the company’s own corporate culture and a business philosophy that places people ahead of profits — always.

WalMart is great place to buy stuff cheap, but in the process you also buy cheap stuff. There’s a place for that, I guess. But when the competition from Big Wally drives out the small retailers and forces Wally’s suppliers to offshore just about everything, our choices actually become fewer and our communities become poorer. But, hey, at least the poor have a place to shop, right?

WalMart may well survive all this criticism thanks to its ability to strong-arm suppliers and drive prices ever lower. But eventually, the bully gets his comeuppance. And his bully image can’t be altered by a slick advertising campaign. WalMart would be wise to heed this classic axiom from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

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