We know we're supposed to despise the world's biggest retailer for driving Mom and Pop out of business, shuttering Main Street, buying manufactured goods made by Honduran slaves, failing to promote women and being hideously de classe.
This is to say nothing of the actual Wal-Mart shopping experience, which is ... oh, what would be the word? Ah: dehumanizing. After you pass the friendly greeter, you may not see another employee till checkout. You become one of the teeming hordes, following primal instinct and the human surge from aisle to aisle, bargain to bargain. It's basically the casbah, albeit with better signage.
All this to spend 7% less for a curling iron.
Yes, we get why we're supposed to hate them, and maybe intellectually we do ... but our heart just isn't in it. Why? One reason is that they've brought low prices to millions. That is not nothing. The other reason is the advertising. Over 15 years, Wal-Mart and GSD&M, Austin, Texas, have done such a good job at displaying the softer side of cutthroat business practices, we find ourselves just really wanting to like them.
Your daughter brings home the boyfriend. He has a comb-over and a souped up Chevy with chrome rims. But she loves him, so you focus on his better qualities. He's sweet to her. He chews with his mouth closed. He's friendly.
Wal-Mart-at least the Wal-Mart of the advertising universe-is friendly. Welcoming. A community of shoppers and employees who get genuine satisfaction out of being there:
- Gloria, the clerk, (1992) who recalls helping an old, half-blind lady with her weekly shopping. It's all in the past tense, so maybe the old lady is dead, but the greeter seems thrilled that she was able to help.
-The sad, sad little family (1991) that looks for a Wal-Mart even on its vacation so it won't feel too disconnected from home.
-Rex, the out-of-retirement greeter (1993), who says "How y'doin'?" all day long. "You treat people nice," he says, "they gonna treat you nice."
-The teenager who goes on a Maybelline and L'Oreal shopping spree (1998) to do a makeover for her frumpy mom.
Every now and then, the advertising even offers some homespun wit, such as the intercut interviews (1992) of a sporting-goods clerk and his regular customer.
CLERK: He loves to fish. More, he loves to talk fishing.
CUSTOMER: Of course, he does ask my advice on occasion.
CLERK: He does have an opinion.
CUSTOMER: And I give it to him freely.
CLERK: I get it whether I ask for it or not.
It's cute, and authentic-sounding. But more to the point, it is about a relationship. And whatever you might say about Wal-Mart (or think, or know), you can't deny that it has forged a successful relationship with its customers. Advertising hasn't necessarily done all the work-prices and selection are at the heart of it-but years of warmhearted ads have given viewers permission to see the cutthroat businessmen at least as neighbors, if not actual friends.
And that's not nothing, either.