Wal-Mart Sees How Fast Bad Press Spreads Online

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By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, January 8, 2006

Used to be, when you were angry with a corporation or a government or even a person, you had to stand outside the building and hold a sign, or at least yell a lot.

Your distribution -- and potential impact -- was limited to the range of your voice or the size of the letters on your sign. If you hoped for a wider audience, you had to hector the local television news to show up. If you got really lucky, its feed was picked up by the networks, and you'd get 30 seconds at the end of the evening news.

But now, you can go from zero to global in a matter of minutes, as Wal-Mart painfully found out last week.

Early Thursday afternoon, some bloggers discovered a horrifying sight: Wal-Mart's retail Web site was telling potential buyers of "Planet of the Apes" DVDs that they might also like to buy DVDs featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., black boxing legend Jack Johnson and black actress Dorothy Dandridge. In another nasty linkage, those titles were also recommended to buyers of a "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" DVD.

Zowie.

Perceived racism is like anthrax to a company: potentially deadly and hard to clean off. The graveness of the situation was reflected in Wal-Mart's quick public apology, in which it said it was "heartsick" over the incident.

As of late Friday, the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant insisted its site was not hacked. Instead it called the unfortunate product linkage a problem involving its "mapping" technology. On a retail site, mapping takes product titles -- books, CDs, DVDs, etc. -- and thematically links them to other products. It has turned out to be a powerful consumer theory, made popular by Amazon.com, based on the assumption that consumers will buy other stuff if it's similar to the stuff they just bought.

The first time I noticed this practice was nearly a decade ago on one of the early versions of http://www.allmusic.com/ . I'd look up a signer, say, Joe Jackson, and the site listed "similar artists," such as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. I thought, "How'd they know I liked those guys, too?" Turns out, like most of us, I'm pretty predictable. Only rabidly self-conscious and eclectic hipsters can outsmart The Map. Wal-Mart's mapping technology is based on the same cross-referenced affinity-link assumptions as Allmusic's.

But as mega-corps such as Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target profit from the Web, they are discovering it has drawbacks, as well. Indeed, Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, has found a bull's-eye on its back bigger than Target's.

Anti-Wal-Mart sites, such as http://www.againstthewal.com/ and http://www.walmartwatch.com/ , blast the company for what they consider poor practices and all manner of evils, from driving local retailers out of business to paying its employees low wages.

As happened with the supposed Air National Guard service records of President Bush and countless lesser stories, the Web -- bloggers, alt-news sites and so forth -- can now drive mainstream news coverage. Folks who never read a blog but read papers and watch the news now know that significant anti-Wal-Mart sentiment exists.

Thursday was a bad day for critical thought. It was amazing, frankly, how quickly some bloggers were ready to believe that Wal-Mart linked its "Planet of the Apes" DVDs to black-themed DVD titles on purpose. Aside from kiddie porn and e-mail scams, this is perhaps the most troubling trait of the Internet: Rather than opening minds, it can close them, thanks to echo-chamber Web sites and blogs.

Which, coincidentally, works on the same premise as retail-site mapping. We like to read Web sites and blogs that we agree with and that reinforce our opinions. Aside from the few of you who practice "know your enemy" browsing, how many of you liberals read http://www.nationalreview.com/ ? How many of you conservatives frequent http://www.thenation.com/ ?

People who hate Wal-Mart are going to flock to anti-Wal-Mart sites and blogs. And they did in droves on Thursday, writing sentiments along the lines of, "Well, what do you expect from a company that has non-progressive labor rules?" In other words: "Well, of course Wal-Mart is racist. Look at how they engage in various practices we don't agree with."

Kind of makes me nostalgic for the old days, when the only damage a kook with a sign and a bullhorn could do was annoy people on the sidewalk.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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