World Wide Web: Wal-Marting Your Mindshare
Control the language and you control the mind. It's the real reason the pen is mightier than the sword. All marketers - noble or not - know this. They're constantly searching for the words to gain consumer mindshare and influence attention. It's why politicians and their pundits who have to sell their ideas tussle endlessly to claim the high ground using terms such as "pro-life" or "pro-choice" when actually neither term is completely honest.
Think about it. Most of the folks who have defined themselves in the public eye as pro-life are in reality anti-abortion; they'll gladly send a convicted murderer off to his or her own state-sponsored death. Meanwhile, the pro-choice gang should more rightfully be called an abortion-rights group; they're far less adamant about free will when it comes to using vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.
And that's not even getting into what the real meaning is.
The stakes for the public's mindshare are higher in selling politics than in selling material objects, but as corporations get bigger and throw their weight around to tip the economic scales in America and elsewhere, the ability to manipulate language and sway public perception becomes vitally important.
A great recent example was the "Wal-Marting Across America" flog fiasco from Wal-Mart and its public relations agency, Edelman. Originally revealed by BusinessWeek magazine as a flog, or fake blog, written by a pair of paid hacks who traveled across the country in an RV, spending their nights in Wal-Mart parking lots and saying wonderful things about the company and its employees, "Wal-Marting Across America" inspired an explosion of hot conversation from other bloggers and marketing observers - but the dialogue has largely been limited to the usual tsk-tsking regarding a pr firm's hypocrisy and subterfuge (We're shocked! Shocked!), questions about who knew what when and how high up it went.
Actually, I think, it goes deeper than that. And as we dig down into the linguistic manipulation, it appears that Edelman's claims of the misbegotten flog being merely the work of junior account team members is spin, smoke, and mirrors of misdirection.
Before the "Wal-Marting Across America" site launched, the verb "Wal-Marting" meant something very different than "traveling in an RV and parking in Wal-Mart lots overnight." It was a derogatory term, possibly coined in 2000 by the professor and writer Jason Mallory, used generally to refer to the degeneration of the American shopping experience from many mom-and-pop shops to a few big-box retailers.
Any PR agency worth its retainer could see that "Wal-Marting" in its current connotation had to be subverted. If Edelman's junior people came up with this strategy, well then, Edelman deserves kudos for hiring some of the sharpest and most devious flacks on the block. People who think like political operatives, in fact.
Which, come to think of it, is exactly what Kevin Sheridan used to do. Sheridan, who heads up the Wal-Mart account for Edelman, used to be the spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He recruited Terry Nelson, a highly paid Republican strategist.
Is it likely that these brilliant political minds entrusted a project like this to junior staffers at the largest pr agency in the world? Now, I'm not accusing anybody of anything. It's just words. But maybe you can read between the lines.
Tom Siebert is editor-at-large at MediaPost. (email@example.com)