Wal-Mart as Savior?

Pleasant.” On the tote board of possible compliments, that’s right up there with being a “good listener.” But that about covers my initial thoughts on the latest Wal-Mart TV spots: Two, “Road Trip” and “Car,” were released last week, and “Wedding” is soon to follow.

The new strategy is based on data from an updated Global Insight study that contends an average American family saves $2,500 a year by shopping at Wal-Mart. Each spot’s final title card asks, “What will you do with your savings?” So, “Car” shows a dad taking his teenage son to buy a used Pontiac. The kid is chewing gum and blowing bubbles, and the wind is shown artfully blowing the plastic Wal-Mart bags in the back of the dad’s pickup truck. Since this particular father-son scene seems so familiar as to be rendered corny, are they subliminally telling us that it blows?

“Road Trip” is a bit better. It shows a family vacation, and there are a couple of poetic moments—a girl looks out the window at the trees above, she makes a friend in a motel pool. Nicely executed, it’s dreamy and nostalgic with cool, soothing music. It seems to sum up all the car trips of our collective childhoods, involving motels, oceans, blue sky and highways. There’s jumping on beds, too. It ends with a road sign for Orlando and the new tagline, “Save money. Live better,” far less pedestrian than “Always low prices.”

Still, on the heels of the rather timid first spots, I expected these to be more knock ’em, sock ’em. Is the tepid, dream-like imagery some sort of trick? Is the work so lulling and narcotizing that it’s like visual Ambien—we’ll see it and immediately sleepwalk to the nearest Wal-Mart store, and not remember anything about our trip in the morning?

I can’t figure out what’s going on. After all, this is the work of The Martin Agency, home of the always fresh and funny Geico campaign. But like Geico’s “I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance” series, this campaign, too, is all about saving money, and therein lies the code: Saving money is virtuous, and Wal-Mart is our saviour.

This crafty effort is less about traditional brand image advertising, in which Wal-Mart is a big box retailer competing against Kmart, Target, JC Penney or Sears, and more like political messaging, selling us on Chairman Sam and his policies.

The new Web site, www.savemoneylivebetter.com, opens with some of the discount retailer’s visionary yet down-home sayings, including “Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore conventional wisdom.”

Indeed, the agency seems to have taken Sam Walton’s belief in the counterintuitive move to heart.

The Web site includes a place for consumers to post stories about what they’re doing with their savings. It also features a ticker that shows “the amount of money Wal-Mart has saved Americans since January 1, 2007.” Last I looked, it was over $200 billion.

Meanwhile, (and this is key) while the Wal-Mart meter is still tickin’, the U.S. economy is takin’ a lickin’. There’s constant news of foreclosures and a collapse of the subprime mortgage business, which roils the stock market.

So what a clever move, in the midst of all the economic worry, for Wal-Mart to promote itself as the humble but beneficent family helper, leading the way to financial health. It has turned the word “buy” into the word “save.” And how can that be bad?

Now, based on the stories that Wal-Mart shoppers post to the Web site, the company can talk about Robert from N.C., who “finally put some money into my savings account.”

I wouldn’t be a cynical journalist if I didn’t point out that Wal-Mart Watch, a union-backed opposition group, has already questioned the $2,500 figure. But even for true Wal-Mart shoppers the logic is somewhat circular. It’s like that Bizarro cartoon from 2006 that shows a greeter standing by the door, saying, “Wal-Mart put my store out of business, so I had to get a job at Wal-Mart. Thanks to Wal-Mart, I can now only afford to shop at Wal-Mart. Enjoy shopping at Wal-Mart.”

In these image ads, we never see the inside of a store. Instead, it’s all about what happens down the line—a sort of Waltonian Pay-It-Forward theory. You save money so you can give it to the used car salesman, who then can spend it at Disney. It’s a small world after all.

It’s also “Morning Again” in Bentonville. And damned if these ads aren’t as sophisticated (and will probably be as successful) as anything that came out of the Tuesday Team during the Reagan re-election campaign.