Wal-Mart’s Public Image Campaign
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
SPOKESMAN: We’ve incorporated a wind turbine into our power needs –
PAUL SOLMAN: In Aurora, Colorado, a propeller helps power a highly publicized, brand-new, eco-friendly Wal-Mart, –
PAUL SOLMAN: This is like foam or something.
PAUL SOLMAN: — which also recycles.
SPOKESMAN: We’re using tires that have been recycled as the sidewalk itself.
PAUL SOLMAN: Plus signs powered entirely by solar cells; the store heated with the help of re-used frying oil; low-energy lights that shoppers trigger on and off when they walk by. It might seem to be evidence of a new, kinder, gentler Wal-Mart. Spokesperson Mona Williams says that’s because the company is listening to its critics.
MONA WLLIAMS: We’ve talked to environmentalists, we’ve talked to NGOs; we’ve talked to people in neighborhoods. We’ve really reached out to say: What should we be doing differently? What can we do to be a better citizen? What can we do to be a better company, and we’ve listened to those folks, and that’s why, I think, you’re seeing a lot of the changes that you’re seeing right now.
PAUL SOLMAN: Wal-Mart’s better citizenship was on public display during Hurricane Katrina, when it was widely seen to have served local communities better than FEMA did.
SPOKESMAN: Socks, underwear, T-shirts, toothpaste, mouthwash, everything individually separated by pattern.
PAUL SOLMAN: Wal-Mart’s come out for raising the minimum wage, underwrites PBS’s Tavis Smiley Show and National Public Radio. Why all of this now? Well, years of criticism, the need to expand to more urban climbs and an uneasy Wall Street may explain the morphing of Wal-Mart. Its expansion plans, for instance, have run into more and more resistance of late. Its stock has drooped some 30 percent the past five years after soaring 700 percent in the previous five.
WORKER: Give me a W-A-L -
PAUL SOLMAN: And despite the usual gung-ho hosanna that ushered in the Aurora store, Wal-Mart’s finding that, these days, it’s not even easy being green.
SPOKESMAN: The majority of the back wall of this store is a product called solar wall.
PAUL SOLMAN: The Sierra Club said of Aurora: “One store out of thousands does not make for an environmental champion.” Others dubbed the store part of the new Wal-Mart “charm offensive.”
SPOKESPERSON: One, two, three.
SPOKESMAN: There we go.
GROUP: Yea! (Applause)
PAUL SOLMAN: And the same week this store debuted for the media and public, so did a national anti-Wal-Mart campaign, spearheaded by a film, “The High Cost of Low Prices.”
SPOKESMAN: This movie represents an amazing grassroots effort to try and steer the national dialogue.
PAUL SOLMAN: The film has played at more than 7,000 neighborhood venues like this one and makes vivid the by-now familiar litany of charges: Wal-Mart destroys mom and pop shops and the main streets they anchor; it exploits workers, foreign and domestic, abuses illegal aliens.
And how did this Colorado audience, not far from Aurora, feel about Wal-Mart, post- screening?
CAROLE CORE: I hope the mainstream pick it up and the average American sees it and finally gets a clue and opens their eyes that just because they’re getting cheap deals on toilet paper doesn’t mean that it’s helping our economy.
PAUL SOLMAN: The hottest charge of late is that Wal-Mart hurts the economy by fobbing off its poor employees onto Medicaid, rather than provide healthcare itself.
An internal memo, leaked to the New York Times, has fueled the fire. In it, Wal-Mart admits that: “Critics are correct. Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance,” and says that Wal-Mart might attract a healthier, more productive work force by, among other things, trying to dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart.
Now in fact, the memo also included suggestions like in-store health clinics and a healthier employee diet, but overall it hardly put Wal-Mart’s best face forward.
As a result, the memo, like the film, has become a key weapon in the “Wake-Up Wal-Mart” campaign.
SPOKESPERSON: This is an internal memo that was released to the New York Times and to me illustrates their lack of values and morality.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, says Wake-Up Wal-Mart’s Paul Blank:
PAUL BLANK: If we allow the Wal-Mart business model to continue, then what’s going to happen is other corporations are going to follow it. They’re basically becoming a bulldozer paving the way to the bottom.
PAUL SOLMAN: Wal-Mart’s response, of course, is that its model provides rock-bottom prices to less affluent and genuinely appreciative Americans.
GLENDA SCOTT: I love Wal-Mart. I mean I could open my purse, I have a receipt for every day. I’m in Wal-Mart every day.
SARAH WOODMAN: I’m for Wal-Mart, all for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart’s great.
PAUL SOLMAN: Why?
SARAH WOODMAN: Because it’s cheaper prices.
PAUL SOLMAN: Backing up such statements is a new pro-Wal-Mart film, not bankrolled by the company, which features a town, consumers and employees who’ve all supposedly benefited from Wal-Mart, like Sharon Reese.
SHARON REESE: The first time I went to the dentist, actually got my teeth cleaned. I’ve never done that before, you know what I mean, and to actually be able to go to a doctor when I’m sick, right then, you know, and I don’t have to wait six hours to be seen.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mona Williams has data to support this anecdote.
MONA WILLIAMS: We did our own surveys and found that before coming to work at Wal-Mart, 7 percent of our associates were on Medicaid or some other form of public assistance. After two years of employment with Wal-Mart, that number had dropped to 3 percent. So that’s more than 50,000 people that we’ve pulled off the public assistance rolls.
PAUL SOLMAN: And Wal-Mart’s health insurance numbers seem comparable to the retail sector in general. On the other hand, given all the negative publicity about Wal-Mart, and with its hope for future growth concentrated in the North, on the coasts, in the more urban, more liberal blue states, says union activist Paul Blank –
PAUL BLANK: If you look at the core issues, that make the blue states blue: Health care, economic security, no discrimination, those are the issues that this campaign is about and those are the issues that Wal-Mart is on the wrong side of, and that’s why Wal-Mart is going to have a problem expanding.
PAUL SOLMAN: Pro, con, pro, con. The debate over Wal-Mart continues, even in its own stores. A woman giving out Doritos samples was a Wal-Mart skeptic.
OLDER LADY: I hope that Wal-Mart doesn’t ace out all of the other wonderful grocery stores we have.
PAUL SOLMAN: But an elf promoting Keebler Crackers didn’t understand why Wal-Mart was under attack.
PAUL SOLMAN: You don’t get it?
PAUL SOLMAN: Wal-Mart itself, however, says the times are changing.
MONA WILLIAMS: We are light years ahead of where we were even two or three years ago. I think we have spent the last couple of years making sure that we have weeded out the so-called “bad apples,” managers who would let cost pressures push them to do the wrong thing.
PAUL SOLMAN: But in that case, why is Wal-Mart still such a target? Perhaps because its size and success symbolize what worries so many these days: The inexorable, often inhuman march of the market system in the age of globalization.
“Is Wal-Mart villain or symbol?” we asked the maker of the anti-Wal-Mart film, Robert Greenwald.
ROBERT GREENWALD: I would say Wal-Mart is both. I would say Wal-Mart is the poster child for a series of corporations and they’re the leader of the pack in many ways given their size and given their practices in terms of multinational corporations and the problems that they’re creating.
PAUL SOLMAN: But what if Wal-Mart really is changing? Consider its response to Hurricane Katrina: Replenishing its own devastated stores, giving out water and other supplies free to the communities in which the Wal-Mart stores were based.
Katrina marked a turning point for CEO Lee Scott, according to Mona Williams, who says the boss asked his top executives:
MONA WILLIAMS: What if we were that good in every aspect of our business and also reaching out with social responsibility, what kind of company could we be? Could that take us to the next level?
PAUL SOLMAN: The next level of corporate responsibility that is. The fear of critics of course is that it’s all for show. And that’s why folks like Wake-Up Wal-Mart are still out in force — to compel Wal-Mart to change for good — even it’s begun to change already.