in praise of walmart

It’s not cool to praise Walmart. Heck, to a lot of people, it’s not even cool to shop at Walmart. We know the narrative. The two best things that many can say about Walmart is that it is big and it is cheap. But those are also the two things that have made it so hard to praise Walmart. We tend to shop at Walmart not because we want to or get to. Most of us shop at Walmart because we kind of have to. At least that’s the narrative.

This commercial challenges that narrative. It reminds us that one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the world is also capable of having a soul.

This is a commercial that isn’t really trying to sell you a product. In fact, Walmart doesn’t even appear until 42 seconds into the ad. This commercial is selling you on the old fashioned idea of being human. It is loaded with candid shots of people, regular and ordinary people, living their lives in regular and ordinary ways. It’s beautiful that way. There are no models. There are no scripts or rehearsed lines outside of the narrator speaking over the top of the video. Much like life. There are kids doing the things that kids do, crying, fighting, hugging, playing, and laughing. There are parents doing the same things almost as a reminder that we don’t become something other than human as we age. In a world where every commercial seems aimed at single 18-35 year-olds, it’s hard to recall seeing a more family-affirming commercial.

What don’t you observe in this commercial?

There’s no heavy-handed, ominous talk about “new normals.” Walmart understands you don’t have to talk about “new normals” because life has always been punctuated by “truths and trials, bad days and good.” There’s no pandering about “being in this together” because Walmart seems to understand what many corporations don’t. WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN IN THIS LIFE TOGETHER. Real people, living in the real world have never not been in this together. The only screen that exists in this commercial is off camera shedding a glowing light on a family gathered closely together on a couch. This might seem a bit strange for a commercial that is about Walmart’s new digital platform except that Walmart doesn’t need you to be captivated by their technology. Walmart seems to understand that technology is not an end. In flourishing communities technology exists at the edges serving the human experience, not defining it.

You know what there is a lot of in this commercial? Touching. A kiss, a hug, a holding of the hand, a family dog pile, the comfort of a mom’s touch, a child running eagerly to his dad. Maybe I’m just being sentimental, but in a season where touching has been frowned upon – even among large corporations who have lectured us about the need to “stay home and stay safe” – seeing all of this very normal human interaction moved me to tears. You don’t expect that from a Walmart commercial. It was like someone jarring my memory. Ah yes. That’s living, isn’t it?

Now, put that commercial side-by-side with this commercial from Walmart’s biggest tech and retail competitor, Amazon.

The difference between the two approaches could not be any more dramatic. There is almost no human interaction in the Amazon commercial. The commercial tells the story of a woman ordering a Christmas gift for a girl on a phone. We have no idea who these people are, and we really don’t care. The commercial isn’t about them. The commercial is about Amazon. Amazon is clearly impressed with their technology and logistics, and they want you to be impressed as well. Walmart wants you to look at humanity. Amazon wants you to look at conveyor belts. Technology is not at the margins for Amazon. It is in the center, forcing you to admire it. At Amazon, the only smile you should expect to see is on the box. People are ancillary. It is very revealing that the boxes are the most human things in this commercial. The poor girl at the end gets a gift from her aunt (?), but there’s no real warmth. There’s no hug. There’s no memory created. There is just consumerism paying off a lack of presence with a present. It’s all so terribly impersonal and sad no matter what happy music is layered on top.

The Amazon commercial seems have been designed by a company that doesn’t know anything about humanity. Oh, Amazon know their customers. You could argue that no one knows their customers better than Amazon. But they know them in a different way than Walmart. Amazon is a tech and logistics company born in a garage. It wasn’t born in the old fashioned days of brick and mortar retail spaces where you had to look your customers in the eye. Amazon wasn’t born into a world where you sold a customer a television on Thursday and sat next to them at the football game on Friday. Amazon knows its customers well, but it only knows them as algorithms, not as real people. Amazon knows customers in the same way that statisticians know baseball. They can analyze the game, but they don’t really understand it. To understand it, you need more than analytics and algorithms. To understand it, you need a soul. I’m not sure that Amazon has a soul. I’m quite sure that Amazon doesn’t understand souls.

Some of you are cynical. “It’s just a commercial. These are still just corporations trying to make a buck off the consumer.” That’s true. Walmart doesn’t not want to make money. But you can tell a lot about how a company views itself or what it aspires to be through the ways that it markets itself. (For instance, think about how Chick-fil-a markets itself.) If that’s the case, I’m much higher on Walmart than Amazon. We are drowning in a world that has put technology in the center of the human experience. We are paying a steep price. I will cheer on any organization that works to celebrate humanity and puts technology in its proper place.

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