Wal-Mart Looks to Refurbish Image With Political-Style Ads

In National Push, Retailer Touts the Benefits Its Stores Bring to Communities

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- As the tumultuous Wal-Mart ad agency review drags on, the retailer's corporate-affairs department is stepping into the vacuum with a national TV campaign resurrecting Sam Walton's legacy in two political-style spots designed to burnish the retailer's besieged image.

'Sam's Dream'
The ads, earlier reported by Advertising Age to be testing in Tuscon, Ariz., and Omaha, Neb., in August, include "Sam's Dream," a spot in which the narrator says, "It all began with a big dream in a small town, Sam's Dream." Later in the commercial, the narrator notes, "It's been said that when Wal-Mart comes to town it's like getting a nice pay raise."

In another spot, "One Company," Wal-Mart touts recent health-care initiatives and that the chain has "moved 150,000 uninsured employees into a company-sponsored health plan."

The new national push represents a dramatic shift away from recent campaigns focused on the retailer's merchandising efforts to woo more affluent shoppers. These ads instead aim to appeal to working families by promoting a study financed by Wal-Mart that finds the retailer saves the average family $2,300 a year.

Backpedaling on strategy?
As Wal-Mart struggles with declining same-store sales and a disappointing performance over the critical holiday-shopping season, analysts are closely watching the retailer's advertising efforts for signs it could be backpedaling on its strategy, led by Chief Marketing Officer John Fleming.

How well the newest campaign can deflect critics and win over skeptical consumers -- not to mention drive store traffic -- will certainly reflect on Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, who personally vetted the campaign before it was taken national.

"We believe recent missteps have the potential to lead to significant management reshuffling at Wal-Mart," wrote Goldman Sach's analyst Adrianne Shapira in a report issued today.

The campaign was created by Washington-based Blue Worldwide, a division of Wal-Mart's PR firm, Edelman, and is spearheaded by Leslie Dach, a former executive of Edelman who in July 2006 was appointed to head the retailer's increasingly powerful public-affairs division as exec VP-corporate affairs and government relations.

Initially drew ire
When first tested, the spots drew the ire of opposition groups, including Wal-Mart Watch, which filed a formal complaint of false advertising with the attorneys general in Arizona and Nebraska. Those filings failed to draw action by officials.

Wal-Mart, in a press release announcing the campaign, said it "received an overwhelmingly positive response from customers, associates and community leaders."

Nu Wexler, communications director at Wal-Mart Watch, said the group, a Washington-based coalition backed by the Sierra Club and the Service Employees International Union, does not plan to resurrect its claims of false advertising. But Mr. Wexler did say that "this is a public confirmation by Wal-Mart of their image problems."

'Driven by corporate affairs'
Wal-Mart declined to discuss whether the spots were being funded by its $580 million advertising budget. "This is something driven by corporate affairs," said Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar. "It's about all of us trying to tell the Wal-Mart story to the public."

The campaign is being launched with a national network- and cable-TV buy, Mr. Tovar said.

WakeUpWalMart.com, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, has also criticized the campaign. "Wal-Mart is living in a bizarre state of denial, where no matter how bad their public reputation gets, Wal-Mart still believes that a tired ad campaign can fool the American public into believing it is OK to exploit millions of working families," wrote Chris Kofinis, communications director for the opposition group.

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