Reading The Pictures: Smiley, The Abused Wal-Mart Poster Child


A few weeks ago, we learned that Wal-Mart had set up a "war room" to counter the company's bad P.R. Well, so far, it's performed as if Rumsfeld designed it.

The first task in their media offensive involved countering Outfoxed director Robert Greenwald's $1.8 million new movie, Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price - link. Proving once again this company knows how to skimp, Wal-mart responded with the $85,000 Why Wal-Mart Works - link, directed by The Galloway brothers (known for a 2001 PBS documentary called "Oflag 64: A P.O.W. Odyssey.") If the production quality and rhetorical clarity between the two films is as distinct as, well, the respective movie posters, Wal-Mart might need a rescue mission from Hollywood.

Suffice to say, there are some fundamental problems with the pro-Walmart poster. Just consider the first rule of story making: "Don't tell us, show us." The "pro" poster does little more than issue a textual statement. The "anti" poster, however, sets into motion a plot that you couldn't boil down on six hands.

As it turns out, Wal-Mart also comes up short on the smiley head-to-head competition.

The really smart move by the "anti-Wal-Mart" effort was to leave Evil Smiley's smile intact from the original. (You might think this choice was obvious, but good design always makes it seem that way.) In only doing surgery on the eyes, the anti-forces didn't make Smiley mean so much as it made it two-faced. (Cover up just the eyes or the mouth with your hand to appreciate the effect.) Psychologically, the message it conveys is that the corporation keeps up an appearance of friendliness (and can talk the talk), but just try looking them in the eye.

Less obvious is that the "pro" poster also has a design change to the eyes. (In this case, it's a pretty important detail given the size of the face, and the fact it directly beckons the viewer's gaze.) Perhaps the aim here was to somehow personalize the traditional Smiley? But changing the shape of the eyes into a uniform, less personified rectangle (when the tradition Wal-Mart Smiley is a friendlier oval) seems to do the opposite.

Ultimately, this "new Wal-Mart" smiley has its own suggestions. If you focus on these eyes, the neutral effect gives the impression Wal-Mart is supposedly "all smile." At the same time, the hard symmetry is slightly hypnotic (just like the public's attachment to those low prices). Peer once more, and this Smiley looks like a wall socket. Perhaps we're just expected to plug in?

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(image 1: Galloway Brothers Productions. image 2: Brave New Films)