"If you show us what you want on your list, we'll blast it off to your parents," says an animated holiday elf named Wally who guides children through a seemingly endless conveyor belt of toys on the retailer's website. Children who click a "yes" button to have a product e-mailed to their parents hear a round of applause. If they click the "no" button, the rejected toy gets boxed up and unceremoniously sent to a dump truck.
The animated Wally, and his elf friend Mary, characters with quirky accents and irreverent attitudes, are also the stars of an upcoming 60-second, 3-D spot that will run in cinemas this holiday season, and they will also appear in TV spots and a special comic book that will be sent to kids visiting the website of the nation's largest toy retailer.
But it is the site, with its blatant cajoling of children to e-mail adults their holiday wish lists, that's drawing the ire of watchdog groups.
"They are trying to gin up children to nag, whine and throw tantrums and sow stress, strife and misery in the home," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, maintaining that the site is obviously aimed at children under 13. "I'm confident it will backfire on Wal-Mart because they are trying to set up an alternative authority structure to bypass parents."
Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, meanwhile, is making a list of its own, launching a letter-writing campaign among its 7,000 members asking Wal-Mart to close down the site. "Families have a hard enough time navigating holiday commercialism without the world's largest retailer bypassing parents entirely and urging children to nag," said Susan Linn, co-founder. "For a company that purports to be family-friendly and promote family values it's very disrespectful of both parents and children."
The site went live just as Wal-Mart closed down the Hub, a quasi-social-networking site launched during the back-to-school season created by GSD&M, Austin, Texas. A spokeswoman for the retailer, whose $580 million account is in review, said "various agencies" worked to "develop the characters and the [holiday] site."
Wal-Mart defended its program in an e-mail. "Making a list for Santa and sharing it with parents is a tradition that goes back as long as Santa. Today's parents certainly remember going through the Christmas catalogs and circling every other item. With the advent of technology, today's kids are savvy about the online world."
The site, said Wal-Mart, "simply modernizes the list-making process. Parents have the same control that they've always had over what to do with that information."
Oddly, however, Santa is circumvented on the site. There's no way to send a list to him, which could blow many a parent's cover for all those gifts under the tree Christmas morning.
Notably, there are no prices on the toys, but before kids can enter Walmart.com, they are warned: "Kids under age 13, please enjoy Walmart.com with a parent or guardian."
Although gift registries for weddings have been around for decades, "wish lists" have burst on the scene as online retailers seek to engage consumers and build a database of online shoppers.