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The Times Falls for Wal-Mart’s "Authenticity"

Posted by Phil Mattera on March 6th, 2008
Dirt Diggers Digest

The New York Times gave a boost today to Wal-Mart’s effort to raise its coolness quotient. Its account of a new blog that the giant retailer is allowing some of its merchandise buyers to produce was filled with references to “candor,” “speak[ing] frankly,” and “uncensored rambling.” Much is made of the fact that the posters have made unflattering comments about some of the offerings of Wal-Mart’s suppliers. Wal-Mart is said to have learned its lesson from earlier disasters with blogs created in the name of bogus front groups. This new initiative, the Times assures us, is the real thing.

It is indeed the case that the site allows reader comments that are critical of certain company practices. For example, a posting by an “associate” named Alex saying he might use spend his federal economic stimulus check to purchase a TV or a laptop was followed by comments on how that would do more to help the foreign economies where such products are made. One person asked: “what happened to the campaign WalMart used to run advertising its commitment to support American manufacturers?”

Yet, it appears that the Times was hoodwinked by Wal-Mart. The appearance of authenticity and candor is just another technique used by advertising agencies and public relations consultants to win over skeptical audiences.

As for those critical comments, it’s significant that “Alex” thanked all those who had corrected a spelling error in his post but had nothing to say about the company’s sourcing practices. In fact, that the only real topic covered in the posts apart from product assessments is “sustainability.”

Those items are posted in the name of Rand Waddoups, who is no lowly buyer but rather the company’s senior director of business strategy and sustainability. His part of the blog, at least, fits in neatly with the company’s dubious campaign to depict itself as the environmental leader of the corporate world.

As I have previously noted, Wal-Mart’s green crusade places all the burdens on its suppliers, while the moves taken by the retailer itself (improving energy efficiency, etc.) are in fact nothing more than cost-cutting measures that boost its bottom line. Until Wal-Mart makes some hard choices itself—such as paying all its workers a living wage—nothing it does in the blogosphere or elsewhere is going to be very authentic.