Paul Holmes

Wal-Mart book-burning ad reflects retailer's belief that criticism equals hostile censorship

Wal-Mart book-burning ad reflects retailer's belief that criticism equals hostile censorship

Large and powerful institutions are surprisingly prone to paranoia.

They see themselves beset by dark forces, under siege. They come to see their critics - however weak and ineffectual - as enemies of all that is good and right.

I first came across a cogent explanation of this phenomenon almost 20 years ago in a wonderful book by USC professor Ian Mitroff called We're So Big and Powerful Nothing Bad Can Happen to Us. Mitroff was looking at the pharma industry's image problems and found that managers saw themselves in a heroic light - after all, they discovered and brought to market products that saved lives. Surely anyone who criticized that work was some sort of Commie pinko nut out to undermine the well-being of society (an attitude that explains why hostility toward the industry has not dissipated appreciably in the intervening decades).

Microsoft, during the antitrust investigation of the late '90s, similarly seemed to see itself as Gulliver in Lilliput, tied down and jabbed by a thousand tiny enemies, all of whom wanted to undermine its noble mission of bringing affordable, easy-to-use software to the masses.

And now Wal-Mart, which, like Microsoft, has grown so vast that it's almost impervious to the criticism of mere mortals, has apparently come to believe that it, too, is an unfortunate victim of hostile forces. How else to explain a recent ad that compares the retailer's critics to book-burning Nazis?

The ad ran in Arizona, and used an image of fascists in 1930s Germany throwing books onto a fire in front of a giant swastika. The copy that accompanied the image suggested that local opposition to a Wal-Mart store was the equivalent of Nazi censorship.

Leaving aside the question of whether there's a moral equivalence between censorship in the worst dictatorship of the 20th century and letting citizens vote on whether they want a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood, the ad was in questionable taste (and, to its credit, Wal-Mart apologized after the Anti-Defamation League complained).

Wal-Mart also reacted angrily to my recent suggestion that it wasn't prepared to engage in dialogue with its critics, pointing out that it had invited some of them to express their concerns at its recent PR summit. I'd argue that there's more to dialogue than simply allowing your opponents to speak. True dialogue must include the potential to change substantive policy to accommodate concerns. As far I know, Wal-Mart is still steadfast in its opposition to organized labor, for example.

But I'll let readers decide which better represents the real management culture at the retail giant: the paranoia of the book-burning ad or the spirit of glasnost signaled by its recent PR summit.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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