Desperate to appeal to teens with something other than pencils and backpacks during the crucial back-to-school season, Wal-Mart is launching a highly sanitized, controlled and rather unhip site at walmart.com/schoolyourway. Teens are invited to create their own page, "show it to the world and win some fab prizes," including a chance to have their videos appear in a Wal-Mart TV commercial. Wal-Mart's agency is GSD&M, Austin, Texas.
The opening page shows video of four teens -- a bubbly fashionista, a Texas football player, a quirky skateboarder and an aspiring R&B singer from New York -- who are clearly actors reading a script, although the videos are positioned to appear authentic. Within, there are pages such as "Beth's Backyard Club," where you find a picture of her in a strapless prom dress above the approved quote: "I'll school my way by looking hot in my Wal-Mart clothes to school to catch a cute boy's eye. ..."
'Are these real kids?'
The site is an attempt at closing the trend gap Wal-Mart now faces as Target wins more teen-apparel dollars. But if Wal-Mart thought it could win over Amy Kandel, 14, of Columbus, Ohio, it was wrong. "Some of the kids looked like they were trying to be supercool, but they weren't at all, and they were just being kind of weird," she said. "Are these real kids?"
Nor did it impress Pete Hughes, 18. "It just seemed kind of corny to me," he said.
Wal-Mart declined to comment.
No doubt leery of all the problems with MySpace.com, Wal-Mart's site disqualifies any video with "materials that are profane, disruptive, unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, vulgar, obscene, hateful, or racially or ethnically-motivated, or otherwise objectionable." That's why "pending approval" notes dominate pages already created and content is limited to a headline, a fashion quiz and a favorite song. Wal-Mart also plans to e-mail the parents of every registered teen, giving them the discretion to pull a submission.
Moreover, the retailer reserves the right to edit the commercial created with the winning video, obviously hoping to avoid the fate of Chevrolet's Tahoe, which allowed consumers to create their own video spots unchecked and ended up with some unflattering results.
Don't expect a subversive, ironic ad
So a subversive, ironic ad by a savvy teen on how her dad's hardware shop closed down after the retail goliath rolled into town would likely be "otherwise objectionable" to Wal-Mart.
The tight controls will work against Wal-Mart's goal to make the site more edgy and will instead cement the retailer's image as a conformist brand, said Tim Stock, a researcher with New York-based Scenario DNA, a research firm devoted to studying Gen Y.
"The second you try to create boundaries and draw a line around content and put a box around content, it becomes something else. Teens aren't searching for what a company deems relevant, but what they deem relevant," Mr. Stock said. "You can't own it. When anyone tries to own it too much, then it becomes a problem. That's the impression I get on this site."
A lot at stake
And there's a lot at stake here. "Wal-Mart really needs this to work," said Irma Zandl of youth-marketing firm Zandl Group. "Over the last year, we have been getting increasingly bad feedback from teen girls about Wal-Mart in contrast to Target -- especially Wal-Mart's apparent lack of cleanliness, messy layout and lack of stylish attire. This attempt at 'we media' is terrific. We'll have to wait and see if it's enough to overcome in-store issues."
But it won't change the shopping habits of Molly Morgan, 14, who goes to Wal-Mart only when her mom does to buy groceries and spends her monthly $150 clothing budget at Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister and Nordstrom.
The Columbus teen doubts she'll submit a video or enter the contests because "it, like, takes a lot of time, and it's not very likely you'll win."