Wal-Mart’s Image-Boosting Interest in Public Broadcasts

17 August 2004

Money can't buy you love, but the world's largest retailer hopes it will go a long way toward improving its cred as it struggles to find acclaim among potential customers.

Wal-Mart has been criticised recently for refusing to sell music with offensive lyrics, certain men's magazines and disguising 'uncomfortable' headlines on other titles. It is also under attack for its voracious expansionism, business tactics and labor exploitation.

It seems the good ol' Arkansan moral values don't cut it in US urban areas, where Wal-Mart has faced growing opposition to the opening of new stores. Chicago, New Orleans and the Inglewood suburb of Los Angeles are among the regions where the company has met with building rejections and consumer resistance.

To counteract this, it has developed a sudden interest in promoting public broadcasting and now boasts sponsorship of National Public Radio, has underwritten Californian TV talk show Tavis Smiley and will finance journalism scholarships around the US.

Spokeswoman Mona Williams explains the company is 'especially sensitive to the need for balanced coverage', and believes the promotional messages played on Tavis Smiley and public radio in return for Wal-Mart dollars, will reach out to a new demographic 'and help them understand the value that we bring to their areas.'

The move has met with some scepticism: "What a disappointment! Maybe next it will be Halliburton [the US oil services giant formerly run by US vice president Dick Cheney and currently under investigation for alleged fraudulent misuse of public money in Iraq ]" wrote one NPR listener in response to news of the sponsorship.

The funding of journalism scholarships at several US universities has been better received. Ten universities including Arizona State, Howard and Southern California will receive $50,000 (€40,455; £27,126) each to be distributed as $2,500 student grants.

Says Jannette L Dates, dean of Howard University's John H Johnson School of Communications: "I'm going to go after some of those others [non-media companies] and say 'See, Wal-Mart did this, why don't you?'"

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff