Walmart last week debuted an early Thanksgiving-themed ad featuring a diverse group of people, including of various apparent ethnicities, ages and physical abilities, titled “Many Chairs, One Table.” The ad was released in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, during which President Donald Trump was criticized for referring to violence on "many sides," although people familiar with the matter told Ad Week the timing of the release was coincidental.
The ad, set to The Youngbloods 1967 song “Get Together,” is reminiscent of Coke’s iconic “Hilltop” ad from 1971, where multicultural group of young people sang a song song of “apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves” and "perfect harmony" at a time of racial strife and controversy over the Vietnam War.
Ad Age characterized Walmart’s ad, which plays to the words “Come on people now, Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, Try to love one another Right now,” as a “gingerly” effort to weigh in on racial controversy, noting that the retailer hasn’t called attention to the ad or shown it on television so far.
As Ad Age also notes, this ad was uploaded to YouTube days after Walmart CEO Doug McMillon rebuked President Donald Trump for his handling of deadly turmoil at a weekend white-power rally in Charlottesville, VA. At the time, McMillon stated that the president "missed a critical opportunity" in his reaction to the "tragic events," yet he opted to remain on a White House advisory board even as other CEOs quit. The panel swiftly disbanded over the defections and ongoing controversy.
In its own description of the ad, Walmart emphasized its massive American customer base. “We're a place where 140 million people gather every week, and our stores are part of the fabric of communities all around America,” the description reads. “Inspired by what we are hearing from many of our customers and associates right now, we recognize and celebrate the importance of coming together despite our differences.”
McMillon, by criticizing the president but remaining on the council, was trying to straddle a line that ultimately collapsed as the groups fell apart. In a note to employees, later released publicly, McMillon took Trump to task but hailed his later, less controversial remarks. That progress was undone by a free-wheeling press conference where Trump appeared to stick to his earlier response, which led to further defections. A Walmart spokesperson at the time told Retail Dive that McMillon had nothing further to add.
This ad may be that add, and going beyond middle-of-the-road responses may increasingly be a necessity. Decisiveness, even regarding divisive political issues, is emerging as a value on the part of consumers, experts say. In the Trump age, "being political" goes beyond topics like manufacturing jobs, safety in overseas factories and environmental sustainability, says retail futurist Doug Stephens. “We live in a world where retailers are finding themselves having to become more politically responsive — whether they like it or not,” he told Retail Dive in an email earlier this year.
It's the kind of brand positioning that Walmart, "as one of several iconic brands in the market," should do more, according to Jim Fosina, CEO of Fosina Marketing Group, who noted that it's a great message for the retail giant in part because it departs from its usual focus on low prices and wide selection.
"They need to show that a BIG company can speak in a low voice to the hearts of the people that they serve as customers. They should be revealing their soul and humanity as a core component in their marketing moving forward," he told Retail Dive in an email. "The current generation of consumers and those that are coming up want to 'feel good' about the brands that they engage with. [This] speaks more eloquently about the number of jobs that the company creates, the number of families that the company impacts in a very direct way. They need to bring the humanity back into the brand so that they can strengthen reasons to shop at their stores."
While many brands have traditionally been loathe to take a stand, out of fear of alienating customers, a political stance is emerging as helpful, according to pubic affairs firm Global Strategy Group.
"Americans are looking to corporations to lead on the issues of the day,” according to an email from Global Strategy Group, which conducted a study of consumer reaction to Super Bowl ads last year, many of which were political, or perceived to be. "From CEOs protesting at airports to Super Bowl ads opposing Trump’s immigration ban, we are seeing unprecedented political activism from corporations. While this level of activism may present challenges with the new Administration, Americans are clear that they want corporations to engage in the political debate."