We are very concerned about the concentration of the media into fewer and fewer hands, but what about retail? Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest company, it is the biggest private employer in the US, it sells 36% of all dog food, 32% of disposable diapers, 30% of photographic film, 26% of toothpaste, 21% of pain remedies, 15% of single copy magazine sales. Its $240 billion-plus in annual sales represents 2.3% of the ENTIRE U.S. ECONOMY.
Its music and magazine policies continue the Disney-fication of America: if it offends “family values,” it doesn’t exist for Wal-Mart. The latest victims, three men’s magazines:
- Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has pulled the men’s magazines Maxim, Stuff and FHM from its shelves, deeming them too racy for its customers.
The retail giant made the decision after hearing opinions from customers and associates, Melissa Berryhill, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman told The New York Times in Tuesday’s editions.
The halt in sales is part of a series of moves by Wal-Mart to pull back on items that it considers too risque. Maxim, Stuff and FHM often feature starlets posing on the cover and in layouts with little clothing.
….”I don’t think that these decisions are often rational; they are subjective. For any men’s magazine to put a woman on the cover seems a bit troubling to them,” he said. [AP]
The NY Times has more:
- Magazine industry executives said Wal-Mart occasionally declines to sell particular issues of some magazines, including the September 2001 issue of InStyle that featured an artfully arranged nude photo of the actress Kate Hudson. Last year, Wal-Mart also took exception to a single photo in a compilation of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues and decided not to sell the one-time publication.
….Many publishing executives are concerned that Wal-Mart’s strong position in magazine sales might put the chain in the role of taste maker for the industry as a whole. But few want to offend the biggest retailer of magazines in America.
“They are extremely important,” said Dan Capell, editor of Capell’s Circulation Report, a newsletter about magazine circulation. “They are the largest retailers of magazines and probably the fastest growing.”
This corporate censorship is legal – Wal-Mart can sell what it wants to – but when so much sales power is consolidated in a single pair of hands, those “subjective” decisions affect not just what gets sold, but even what gets MADE, and that is very troubling.
In an article calling Wal-Mart “the most admired company in America,” Fortune still provides some frightening perspective:
- What this means for Wal-Mart’s low-profile CEO, Lee Scott, is that he runs what is arguably the world’s most powerful company. What it means for corporate America is a bit more bracing. It means, for one, that Wal-Mart is not just Disney’s biggest customer but also Procter & Gamble’s and Kraft’s and Revlon’s and Gillette’s and Campbell Soup’s and RJR’s and on down the list of America’s famous branded manufacturers. It means, further, that the nation’s biggest seller of DVDs is also its biggest seller of groceries, toys, guns, diamonds, CDs, apparel, dog food, detergent, jewelry, sporting goods, videogames, socks, bedding, and toothpaste–not to mention its biggest film developer, optician, private truck-fleet operator, energy consumer, and real estate developer. It means, finally, that the real market clout in many industries no longer resides in Hollywood or Cincinnati or New York City, but in the hills of northwestern Arkansas.
And how does this power direct our culture? Most obviously through its censorship policies as in magazines, above, and music:
- With its roots in the Southern Christian heartland, Wal-Mart believes that being a “family” store is the key to their mass appeal. They refuse to carry CDs with cover art or lyrics deemed overtly sexual or dealing with topics such as abortion, homosexuality or Satanism. While Wal-Mart is the world’s largest CD retailer, and in some regions the only place in town to purchase music entertainment products represent only a fraction of their business. However, it is a different story for recording artists. Because Wal-Mart reaps about 10 percent of the total domestic music CD sales, most musicians and record companies will agree to create a “sanitized” version specifically for the megastores. Sometimes this entails altering the cover art, as John Cougar Mellencamp did when asked to airbrush out an angel and devil on one of his album covers. Other times, musicians change their lyrics and song titles. Nirvana, for example, changed its song title from “Rape Me” to “Waif Me” for the Wal-Mart version. They also changed the back-cover artwork for the album In Utero, which Wal-Mart objected to because it portrayed fetuses. And when Sheryl Crow released her self-titled album, Wal-Mart objected to the lyric, “Watch our children as they kill each other with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores.” When Crow would not change the verse, the retailer refused to carry the album. This type of censorship has become so common that it is often regarded as simply another stage of editing. Record labels are now acting preemptively, issuing two versions of the same album for their big name artists. Less well-known bands, however, are forced to offer “sanitized” albums out of the gate. [PBS]
And what of the future? It only gets bigger and the issues more acute as a result:
- If Wal-Mart maintains its annual growth rate of 15%, it will be twice as big in five years. “Could we be two times larger?” asks CEO Lee Scott. “Sure. Could we be three times larger? I think so.”
Crazy talk? Maybe not. Roughly half of Wal-Mart’s Supercenters (groceries plus general merchandise) are in the 11 states of the Old South, leaving plenty of room for expansion in California and the Northeast. And Bentonville is getting creative about overcoming the political and real estate hurdles there. In January it opened its first inner-city Supercenter in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, a three-story affair with special escalators for shopping carts. All told, Wal-Mart will open roughly a store a day this year.
Does America see its culture defined by Wal-Mart? Maybe not, but Wal-Mart does, and what Wal-Mart wants, Wal-Mart gets, including a compressed, sanitized, “family-friendly” culture.