November 10, 2006
Wal-Mart's Third Strike? Christmas Campaign Drawing the Ire of Parents, Anti-Wal-Mart Activists

Like a lot of people who have been blogging about issues of viral marketing, branding, and online social networking, the Wal-Mart Supercenter has provided a place for continual discussion this summer. Their latest move is being heralded as the third in a stupid line of decisions. Wal-Mart has a new initiative in which kids can look through toys on the Web, and then two Wal-Mart online characters promise to help mediate between the kids and the parents to help convince the parents to purchase the items for Christmas.

But this isn't even a chance for kids to think up their favorite toys and then have Wal-Mart bug their parents about them. No...instead, it presents kids with a series of toys and then asks them if they would like to have it or not. Every one that they say yes to becomes fodder for spamming the parents, telling them that they should buy these toys for their children.

The site features the Christmas elves Wally and Marty (clever, huh?), and parents get e-mail spam about purchasing the gifts online. As the folks at Techdirt write, this comes straight "from the still-figuring-out-this-online-stuff dept." The comments in this particular post run the gamut of popular sentiment about Wal-Mart, including the supporters and the haters. But I don't think their plan was to establish yet another source of contention about their intelligence as a marketing department. As commenter Johnny writes, when he exclaims "Wal-Mart is Teh Suck" (sic), "I'm surprised that they thought this was a good idea. But then Wal-Mart and poorly thought out marketing schemes are becoming legendary. They so very desperately want to be cool and hip when they are anything but."

The problem is that this will do nothing to inspire brand loyalty but could serve to annoy parents and certainly gives more fodder to the anti-Wal-Mart folks. Take these comments from the Daddy Daughter Duo blog from Chris Maier, who says this can be "abbeted showing corporations like wal mart that there wholesale disavowal of any ethical decency in the name of a banner Christmas sales season is revolting and could backfire" (sic).

And MySpace user "A.J. Creations" points out another major problem with the initiative, that the elves applaud every toy chosen and complain that they will be out of a job when a toy is not chosen. Not exactly the message many people feel comfortable sending children, that they have to buy EVERYTHING or these cute little characters will be sent to the unemployment line. At least they didn't insert images of Wally and Marty at the soup kitchen or panhandling after a series of "NO" votes from kids.

The difference between this type of wish list and those on Amazon or others is that this is a passive campaign where the user does not seek out the toys they want to buy but rather have everything thrown at them...far from the cute letters to Santa they run in my hometown paper every year and a campaign that I think deserves harsh criticism.

For anyone who wants to send their parents a wish list, be sure to go to Wal-Mart Toyland. You can determine what toys are "listworthy." "If you show us what you want on your wishlist, we'll send it straight off to your parents." On a rocket fueled by their e-mail address.

Also, for more information on Wal-Mart's previous blunders, see my previous writing about The Wal-Mart/Edelman RV blunder and what many people considered a lame School Your Way social networking site.

This may not be considered as universally offensive as the recent "Our Country, Our Truck" ad campaign that I wrote about recently, but it's a reminder of the warning I made a few weeks ago--that I am much more convinced by arguments that pick out particularly despicable advertising campaigns rather than just categorically criticizing advertising as a whole.

In full disclosure, Wal-Mart has worked with one of our partners, GSD&M, for many years, but that partnership recently ended. I have had no conversations with anyone at GSD&M about any of these P.R. and viral marketing campaigns from Wal-Mart.