The commercial above was produced by Worker Center Watch, a website registered to Parquet Public Affairs, a lobbying and PR firm led by Joseph Kefauver. Kefauver is the former president of public relations for Walmart and the former government relations director for Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Pretty much everything good and profitable in America has been publicly related by Kefauver, and yet his clients are the objects of massive protests. It doesn’t make sense. Walmart served 22 million customers on Thanksgiving Day, so Americans obviously support the idea of giving people who worked that night $8.25 an hour. The only explanation is that unions are paying lazy kids with great hair to protest.
The logic is airtight, but it can be kind of hard to follow as you watch the commercial. In admonishing viewers to “just buy your gifts, don’t buy their lies”—comma splice theirs, I assure you—WCW first claims that the job of professional protestors “is to beat up your job.” You the viewer seem to be a person who works at Walmart or another protested chain, but by :54 you appear to be a shopper. The tagline reinforces that idea, too.
It makes sense that WCW would pivot away from encouraging the viewer to identify with employees as the commercial progresses. At the beginning, the idea conveyed is “these kids have money and don’t work.” Literally every professional protestor character in this commercial has an iPhone, and we see all three of them in the first 15 seconds. The time display and the voiceover report that it is afternoon in America, and the message is clear: lazy millennials fall asleep on pizza until it’s time to do what their union masters tell them, while you have to work.
Encouraging the viewer to identify him or herself as a worker is an effective rhetorical strategy during the part of the commercial that wants us to hate troublemaking layabouts, but it becomes problematic during the protest scenes. This ad would read very differently if a Walmart cashier watched through the window as the protestors raged outside. You don’t want the viewer to think, “I am inside scanning dog food while kids shake signs and yell. How much money am I making?”
That’s why the viewer-identified character—the “you” who should not buy the protestors’ lies—becomes a shopper at :54. Now the protestors aren’t trying to get you to join a union or demand higher pay. They’re trying to make you feel bad for shopping. And what right have they to pass judgment, when they don’t even work at all? The hierarchy of moral superiority goes like this:
- People who shop for things.
- People who work at places.
- People who don’t work at places but have things.
Not included: people who work at places but don’t have things. The internal logic of this commercial would suggest that those people are the most morally superior of all, if only by their inverse relation to the hated professional protestors. But obviously they cannot be included. A person who works full-time at Walmart and makes $17,000 a year is exactly whom the WCW does not want you to think about. The dialectic, if you will, is between hard-working shoppers and the paid protestors they hate. The reason for the protest is not mentioned at all.
Fact: the professional protestors WCW cites are the people who work at Walmart. The claim that protestors are paid comes from 2012, when the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union gave $50 gift cards to Walmart employees who participated in a Black Friday walkout strike. The NLRB found that those gift cards constituted a strike fund to compensate for lost wages and were therefore legal. It also found that Walmart managers illegally threatened employees with reprisals if they participated in the strike.
The “professional protestors” whose job it is to beat up your job were not, in fact, “too lazy to get jobs themselves.” They were full-time Walmart employees. Unless they’re getting up late to work the night shift, the smug layabouts in this commercial are pure fiction.
Maybe that’s why it’s so laughably ineffective. The WCW spot has become an internet joke, known less for its persuasive power than for the obviousness of its manipulation. It probably doesn’t help that it runs primarily on Twitter, whose user base is dominated by the iPhone-owning millennials the ad vilifies. “Just buy your gifts” sounds like a surefire message, but it turns out that American consumers are not yet ready for that level of instruction.