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Marketplace Scratch Pad

Making fun of people at Wal-Mart

Scott Jagow Sep 9, 2009

Social media could take us in all kinds of directions. I’m about to show you one direction it’s taking people in droves right now. I’m not advocating it. I’m just pointing it out because this is the kind of thing companies will probably have to put on their radar.

If you Google “people of Walmart” you’re likely to find a new website that’s gone viral. It’s already crashed several times from too many hits. The site is a collection of photos taken at Wal-Mart stores around the country — photos of shoppers with bad hairdos, vulgar t-shirts, huge waistlines and extreme fashions.

Around the web, people have different descriptions of the site: cruel, mean-spirited, disturbing, offensive, hilarious, a revealing social commentary about the American working class. Gawker’s take:

There’s a line in a song: “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.” And then there’s this: a blog taking photos of Wal-Mart patrons. Cruel? Yes. Hysterical? Absolutely. But fascinating. And somehow, art.

Here’s what the founders told CNN Money:

Andrew Kipple said they don’t include pictures of people with physical disabilities or apparent mental disabilities and won’t run a picture of a person simply because they are overweight.

“We’re not going to go out and say we’re not making fun of anybody or we’re the nicest guys in the world. But I think you have to draw a line somewhere when you have a site like this,” he said…

He denied complaints that the photos — many of which attract a string of snarky comments from readers — single out people because they are poor or unattractive.

“If you make a bad decision on what you’re going to be out in public wearing, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said. “If you’re 400 pounds, you shouldn’t be wearing nothing but a pink tube top.

So far, Wal-Mart is staying mum on the subject, but the company must be having PR and quite possibly legal department meetings about this. Here’s some advice from Ad Age:

If Walmart tries to squash the site, they’ll quickly become the laughing stock of social media. If they laugh with the site, they’ll be accused of laughing at their own customers.

They’re better off to stay quiet and let the hoopla die down. Which it will, eventually, if Walmart doesn’t get heavy-handed. It’s not a site that’s likely to do lasting damage to the brand, or help it. It’s a joke that’s gone viral.

But my bet is that Walmart won’t suck it up and be a good sport. Time will tell.

It’s an interesting corporate dilemma, involving concerns on several levels. How should companies handle this kind of stuff?

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