Confirmed victory

On August 9th, 2011, Walmart released an ad for its Back-to-School campaign series titled “Urgent Care.” The video, originally posted on their Walmart YouTube channel, features three teenage boys communicating by smart phone to identify an unknown skin condition. As part of his diagnosis, the boy using Web MD as a medical reference asks the one with symptoms if he has “been in the Congo recently” while simultaneously browsing a page on “Leprosy.” When the answer is “no” he responds: “Okay, well it still might be contagious. I think maybe you should call 911.” The commercial is only 30 seconds long, but, in its brevity, it manages to misinform viewers, entrench negative stereotypes, and endorse a cavalier attitude about the conditions of serious struggle in the Congo.

Many mobilizing a global response to this ad. Facebook Group started on August 22 to protest Walmart has already garnered more the 2000 members, most of them Congolese, who are calling the ad an “insult,” “offensive,” and “utterly inappropriate.” The Congolese community is demanding that the corporation take responsibility for this ad by:

1. Remove the “Urgent Care” ad from all forms of media circulation (TV networks, web, etc.),
2. Issue a press release delivering a public apology to the Congolese people about the ad, and
3. Educate and sensitize a.) Walmart's staff (especially the Marketing Department who approved the release of this ad) and b.) Walmart's customers by providing teaching materials that explain the situation in the Congo and what Walmart is doing to practice responsible sourcing as it relates to the Congo’s mineral resources.

Eyewitness reports confirm that the commercial has been airing on tv from Houston to New York City, so the problem is not limited to internet exposure. A simple retraction is not likely to satisfy those who recognize the seriousness of such public misinformation.

Corporations like Walmart need to understand that the American public will not support companies who promote aggressive forms of ignorance, especially when it comes to an unreported conflict in the world. Congolese and activists everywhere await an official response from Walmart that acknowledges this serious offense and explains how the company will answer demands for taking responsibility.

Letter to
WALMART Michael T. Duke, President and Chief Executive Officer
WALMART Eduardo Castro-Wright, Vice Chairman, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
WALMART Thomas A. Mars, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Walmart U.S.
and 5 others
WALMART Michael J. Bender, President, Walmart West, Walmart U.S.
WALMART David Cheesewright, President and CEO, Walmart Canada
WALMART C. Douglas McMillon, President and CEO, Walmart International
WALMART S. Robson Walton, Chairman of the Board of Directors
WALMART William S. Simon, President and CEO, Walmart U.S.
I just signed the following petition addressed to: Mike Duke, Chief Executive Officer of WALMART.

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SAY NO TO WALMART OFFENSIVE AND PREJUDICED CONGO AD

I am writing to lodge a formal complaint against your “Urgent Care” advertisement released August 9th, 2011 on the web and on TV networks, as part of the Walmart Back-to-School campaign. This ad, created by the Martin Agency, constitutes a serious offense to Congolese people in particular and Africans in general.

The ad misinforms viewers and customers alike, encourages prejudicial attitudes toward Africans, and desensitizes its audience to the greatest humanitarian crisis at the dawn of the 21st century, which is grossly under-reported and widely misunderstood.

1. Misinformation: The ad depicts a student researching WebMD on his smart phone as a means to diagnose a friend’s skin condition. In the process, he suggests that the Congo is either a unique or high-risk source for leprosy, and that he has pulled this information from the WebMD website. Research reveals no mention of Congo on WebMD’s leprosy page. The World Health Organization’s site referenced by WebMD states that leprosy in the Congo reached a stage of elimination in 2007. The same page confirms that 100 cases of leprosy occur annually in the US, meaning that one would not have needed to leave the country for exposure. Viewers are wrongly encouraged to associate leprosy and the Congo without any logical basis for the connection.

2. Prejudice: The ad is only 30 seconds in length, making full characterization of any place or people logistically impossible. However, the Congo has long held a space in Western imagination as a symbol of fear and contagion. With this historical and cultural context, referring to the country as shorthand for disease further entrenches prejudicial stereotypes. The ad encourages us to laugh at the idea that a Caucasian, American, middle-class freshman would travel to the Congo. The joke hinges on the improbability of his visit, either because of the boy’s race, nationality, income, or age. Congo’s undesirability as a destination remains a strong overtone throughout. Viewers are encouraged to think of the Congo solely as a place to be avoided and feared.

3. Desensitization: The media has not adequately covered the conflict in the Congo, despite the fact that it has the most human casualties worldwide since World War II. Nearly six million people have died in the last fifteen years of Congo’s conflict, many from disease because of poor living conditions and displacement. Part of the reason why the conflict receives little coverage is the lack of interest by American viewers. By referring to disease in Congo as a joke, the ad encourages viewers to dismiss conditions of struggle and conflict in the country as “normal” and, therefore, unworthy of attention, intensifying an already serious case of inattention and mis-education about Congo in particular and Africa in general. In fact, it plays into the vilest stereotypes about Africa that desensitizes Americans about the place and the people.

While no one is meant to treat advertisements as public service announcements, they nevertheless function as strong public messages. Ads have power, and this one constitutes a particularly aggressive form of ignorance. It is questionable to benefit as a corporation from the sale of technological products like smart phones while suggesting publicly that the poor living conditions in Congo are an unrelated misfortune, especially when metals found in the phone may play a role in fueling the conflict in the Congo.

I am just one of thousands of supporters, Americans and Congolese, demanding that Walmart takes responsibility for its negative impact with this ad. At minimum Walmart should:

1. Remove the “Urgent Care” ad from all forms of media circulation (TV networks, web, etc.),
2. Issue a press release delivering a public apology to the Congolese people about the ad, and
3. Educate and sensitize a.) your staff (especially the Marketing Department who approved the release of this ad) and b.) your customers by providing teaching materials that explain the situation in the Congo and what Walmart is doing to practice responsible sourcing as it relates to the Congo’s mineral resources.

Through your reparative actions, I ask you to fulfill your 2010 statement that Walmart “will make the absolute most of our opportunity and capacity to lead as a retailer, as a company, and as people who truly care about serving and helping other people around the world.” Thousands of people eagerly await your response and evidence of this commitment.

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Sincerely,