Wal-Mart Targeted in Hyperbolic Ads

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A union-backed anti-Wal-Mart group is broadcasting sensational ads, complete with nuclear clouds and pictures of Osama bin Laden, accusing Wal-Mart of jeopardizing national security in favor of profit. The group hopes to appeal to conservatives, who have not been moved by earlier ads that condemn Wal-Mart's labor practices.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

An anti-Wal-Mart group is changing its strategy. Rather than attack America's largest retailer for low wages or minimal health insurance, the union group now says Wal-Mart is bad for U.S. national security.

As NPR's Adam Davidson explains, the anti-Wal-Mart activists are hoping this shift will help them create a broader coalition that includes conservative Republicans.

ADAM DAVIDSON: If you've seen the ad, you'll probably remember it. It's pretty shocking.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man: Since 9/11, it is one of the greatest threats we face. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Osama bin Laden shipped through an American port.

DAVIDSON: There's a nuclear explosion and Osama bin Laden comes on the screen, then masked terrorists hoisting weapons, then a ship unloading at a seaport.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man: Wal-Mart opposes scanning 100 percent of port containers, leaving America vulnerable to protect their profits.

DAVIDSON: Joe Trippi put the ad together. He used to be Howard Dean's campaign manager and now advises the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign. Chris Kofinis is communications director.

Mr. CHRIS KOFINIS (Communications Director, Wake Up Wal-Mart): I thought the nuclear explosion was critical. I think Joe was, like, I'm not sure we need to put in there but maybe we do, and then we went back and forth.

DAVIDSON: They finally got the ad how they wanted it, the most shocking possible way to highlight a rather obscure policy disagreement. Wake Up Wal-Mart says Wal-Mart was wrong to oppose an amendment to a House bill that would mandate 100 percent container scanning in the next few years. But Wal-Mart was not alone. Just about all shipping, port or retail industry groups were also against the House amendment.

NPR consulted several leading port security experts, all of whom say that Wake Up Wal-Mart is wrong; the House amendment would not make the U.S. any safer. The U.S. Senate agreed. It rejected the House version. No surprise, Wal-Mart does not care for the ad. Spokesman Dave Tovar says it's in poor taste.

Mr. DAVE TOVAR (Spokesman, Wal-Mart): And is an irresponsible attempt to avoid the facts, play upon people's fears and disparage our company.

DAVIDSON: Taking on port security is a real departure for Wake Up Wal-Mart. The group is fully funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and in its dozens of earlier ads, has focused on core union issues like health care, child labor, wages. But Joe Trippi says they need to reach Americans who don't respond to those union issues.

Mr. JOE TRIPPI (Consultant, Wake Up Wal-Mart): Sort of broadening out our messaging in trying to reach people who were not, you know, sort of traditional liberal, Democratic, trying to reach beyond the usual suspects.

DAVIDSON: Wake Up Wal-Mart tried to reach beyond the usual liberal suspects before. In a Christmastime ad, a Christian pastor says Wal-Mart hurts American workers, and then he asks the crucial question...

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Would Jesus shop at Wal-Mart? Should you?

DAVIDSON: The ad, despite its Christian theme, still focused on those core labor issues of health care and wages. But now Wake Up Wal-Mart is putting aside those labor issues and is focused on its Osama bin Laden nuclear bomb campaign. Chris Kofinis.

Mr. KOFINIS: The port security issue, the national security issue had, I think, particular sensitivity and significance for Republicans and conservatives.

DAVIDSON: Dorian Warren is a Columbia University professor. He's writing a book about anti-Wal-Mart campaigners and says it's important to remember that Wake Up Wal-Mart is a union-backed group. After decades of unrelentingly bad news for unions, Warren says organizing the famously anti-union Wal-Mart would be the most significant victory in decades.

Professor DORIAN WARREN (Political Science, Columbia University): So the stakes couldn't be higher. This is a critical juncture for the labor movement in terms of its future survival.

DAVIDSON: The status quo has not been working for labor unions in their fight against Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has not allowed a single store to be unionized. It has not satisfied its critics on wages or health care issues. Warren says Wake Up Wal-Mart is in this battle to win. It wants to get a coalition big enough from the left and the right to finally beat Wal-Mart, and that's just the beginning. Chris Kofinis.

Mr. KOFINIS: So the logic is if you can change Wal-Mart, you can change America. If you can change Wal-Mart, you can change other employers.

DAVIDSON: Professor Warren is quite critical of Wal-Mart and sympathetic to union goals. But he says this ad won't work. He calls the ad "despicable fear-mongering." He says it will likely cause a lot of anger, but mostly at Wal-Mart's critics, not at the company itself.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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