Under new management, union-backed Wal-Mart critics unveiled an ad campaign Thursday that seeks to tie the world's largest retailer to the recent slew of safety problems in Chinese imports.
It is the first campaign from a new team of strategists at WakeUpWalMart.com after the two founding leaders left in July for the Democratic presidential campaign of John Edwards.
The group is one of two political campaign-style organizations launched by unions in 2005 to pressure Wal-Mart Stores Inc. from the outside after years of failing to unionize its stores. WakeUpWalMart.com and the other group, Wal-Mart Watch, criticize the retailer over issues including wages and benefits.
Wal-Mart has responded by adding public relations staff and hiring global PR agency Edelman to press its message of being a good corporate citizen with competitive wages and benefits.
The two sides have been waging a public relations battle for over two years with TV ads, Web sites, blogs, opinion polls and their own opposition research staffs who dig up material against the other.
WakeUpWalMart's new national TV ad claims Wal-Mart's price pressure on Chinese suppliers leads to safety problems in some imports. It will run in 32 markets during morning and evening news shows through the weekend and kick off a series of ads on the topic of China.
The group has criticized Wal-Mart's business with China before, seeing it as an issue that resonates with consumers across the political spectrum.
Wal-Mart, which recently announced stepped-up safety testing of imported toys, defended its large business with China, as it has in the past.
"Our commitment to low prices is never at the cost of safety. Product safety has always been and will continue to be a top priority at Wal-Mart," spokesman David Tovar said. Wal-Mart has previously said it buys overseas in an effort to help consumers by offering low prices.
Wal-Mart is China's largest single corporate customer. In 2004, the last year it released a total, the company said it bought roughly $9 billion in goods from China directly and another $9 billion indirectly, or goods produced in China for another company and then sold to Wal-Mart.
Analysts are split on whether the union strategy of linking Wal-Mart to China's export problems will hurt the retailer's reputation.
Labor specialist Gary Chaison said it is a logical pressure point for unions because American consumers are unsettled by a string of safety recalls this year of China-made products from toys to dog food.
"The unions are hoping that Wal-Mart will be very vulnerable on China. They're looking for points of vulnerability and Wal-Mart tries to plug those up as fast as they can, like in health care," Chaison said.
"Wal-Mart can't plug up the China issue, because it is very much dependent on bringing in Chinese goods to keep its prices low," Chaison said.
But corporate reputation specialist Steven Silvers said the question of Chinese imports is one that affects all big retail chains and it will be hard to make people think Wal-Mart alone is to blame.
"Overall, I don't think this approach is going to move most Americans from whatever stand they may already have on Wal-Mart, good or bad," said Silvers, a partner in Denver-based public relations firm GBSM, Inc. who also blogs about marketing and PR.