Wal-Mart Group’s Ad Equates Opponents With Nazis

Corporation admits ad was “reviewed and approved by Wal-Mart,” then issues apology after uproar

By Rachel Peterson
First published by the Arizona Daily Sun, May 12, 2005

Editor’s note: After Wal-Mart initially denied knowledge of the ad discussed here, public relations person Daphne Moore admitted it was “reviewed and approved by Wal-Mart, but we did not know what the photo was from.”

Even ignoring the Nazi imagery, it’s remarkable for a corporation which regularly censors books (including the latest by George Carlin and John Stewart), music and magazines disfavored by its executives to accuse critics of censorship.

On May 18, 2005, Wal-Mart defeated a ballot question that would have limited new big box stores to 75,000 square feet (about twice the size of a typical chain supermarket). After outspending opponents by more than 3:1, Wal-Mart forces won 51% of the vote.

FLAGSTAFF — Campaign ads bankrolled by Wal-Mart and depicting a Nazi-era book burning are offensive and backhanded, say some Flagstaff citizens and veterans.

Backers contend they are a justified reminder of the need to protect freedoms.

The newspaper ads contend that Proposition 100’s restrictions on big-box retailers are an infringement of constitutional freedoms. The message has been conveyed through a blurred photo of a Nazi book-burning taken from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives and a close-up of a person’s mouth covered with tape.

Accompanying the ads is the statement: “Freedoms worth keeping,” and references to the proposition as limiting choice.

The ad offended some local veterans, many of whom are requesting an apology from the campaign committee.

“There was just the observance of the 60th anniversary of when the death camps were liberated,” said Frank Brandt, a former Air Force Lieutenant and co-chair for YesforFlagstaff.com, a committee that supports the ballot measure. “Are they culturally insensitive?”

Brandt, also a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, said comparing shopping choices with the freedoms soldiers have fought for is a “slap in the face.”

“We fought for freedom and democracy, not corporate greed,” he said. “The No campaign is trivializing these ideals.”

Tom Farley, a consultant for Protect Flagstaff’s Future, the campaign that sponsored the ads, said they will continue because they “make people think.”

“If people are talking about the ads, they’re doing a good job. People are giving up a freedom if they vote yes on Prop. 100. What will they be asked to give up next?”

Although the ads have generated heat from the Yes campaign, Farley said they’ve been well-received by No supporters and have helped sway some undecided voters. The committee has plans for some new ads in the next week to continue to drive up voter turnout, he said.

While this type of “shock-and-awe” campaign tactic has been used successfully on a national level, it’s a “perversion of the electoral process,” said Alexis Johnson, a Flagstaff attorney who litigates state and local constitutional questions across the nation.

When the deciding body is the voters, publishing such ads is “curiously misleading and terribly backhanded,” he said.

“Prop 100 is a vote of the people. The people are telling themselves what they want to do by the vote itself,” he said. “What this (advertising) means to someone like me is votes of the people are dangerous.”

With campaign contributions topping $280,000 from Wal-Mart and $50,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99, this campaign has lost sight of the issues and voice of the people, Johnson said.

“Measures like this are increasingly attracting the attention of consultants from outside the community,” Johnson said. “The people often end up in the gun sights on these measures … and that is now apparently a style of the American electoral process. I think America’s due now to revisit the necessity and vitality of allowing campaign contributions from entities that don’t vote.”

Wal-Mart regional community affairs director Pete Kanelos said his company is involved because “Wal-Mart is adamantly opposed to any ordinance that would restrict consumer choice.”

The comment comes after Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced the company would not try to sidestep local politicians after criticism for winning a repeal of a anti-Wal-Mart ordinance in Inglewood, Calif.

“This is actually an ordinance that is different from Inglewood … That is why we have funded the No on Prop 100 campaign.” Kanelos said. “In Inglewood, they repealed the (big-box limitation) ordinance because we collected twice the number of signatures needed.”

In Arizona, the option to repeal by signatures alone is not available, and the issue must go to the voters.

The promise Scott made was with reference to a large project initiative, which included Wal-Mart, that was taken directly to the voters before presenting it to the city council first, Kanelos said.

Campaign involvement was not part of the equation, he said, adding that Wal-Mart’s involvement is merely funding, and the corporation doesn’t participate at a grassroots level. Because of this, Kanelos is unaware of the controversial campaign ads or whether Wal-Mart would support a campaign that used them.

“I can’t comment on the ad. I haven’t seen it,” he said. “We donate to the campaign committee.”

Farley, who has earned at least $20,000 from the Wal-Mart-backed committee, said his campaign isn’t about enabling corporate control but allowing choice.

“I don’t think the shoppers view it as corporate America,” Farley said. “I think they just view it as what’s being taken away from them.”

What is Proposition 100?

Proposition 100 is a ballot item before Flagstaff citizens to decide the fate of a big-box limitation ordinance.

If supported by voters, the big-box ordinance will require a conditional use permit for retailers building larger than 75,000 square feet, with a cap of 125,000 square feet. It will also impose an 8 percent cap on the amount of floor space a retail store could devote to nontaxable grocery items.

The ordinance, if in place, would limit the possibility of a Wal-Mart Supercenter , which uses 30 to 40 percent of its floor space for grocery items, moving into Flagstaff .

Those stores average 186,000 square feet. For comparison, Flagstaff ‘s current Wal-Mart store is 105,000 square feet.

A yes vote supports the ordinance; a no vote overturns it.

© 2005 Arizona Daily Sun