Housing Complex

The Making of a Walmart Photo Op

Communications guy Tony Rogers. (My camera crapped out for the actual group shot)

Here's something I didn't realize yesterday: Walmart wasn't just sponsoring the opening reception for the National Geographic Museum's new exhibit, America I Am: The African American Imprint. They've actually underwritten the whole thing, which is in the middle of a four-year, ten-city tour that's already stopped in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta and moves next to St. Louis. When mastermind Tavis Smiley came up with the idea, he told the august crowd at least night's reception, he traveled to Bentonville, met with his friend Lee Scott, and walked away with a check large enough to make it all happen (they've declined to divulge exactly how large, but I'd put it in the eight-digit range).

Clearly, it was a good deal for Walmart too: There are few people more bulletproof against charges of racial discrimination than Smiley, and having the radio host profusely thank Walmart for its generosity is helpful in shutting down would-be critics. But in no city, perhaps, has the exhibit been more helpful than Washington, which is in the midst of a heavy charm offensive to smooth the entry for at least four stores. All you needed to do was watch last night's performance to realize how helpful.

Along with the exhibit's curator and the director of the Museum, Smiley shared the microphone with three people: Walmart regional general manager Alex Barron, senior vice president for advertising Tony Rogers, and executive vice president for government relations Leslie Dach, all with gracious white smiles for the thanks and praise showered upon them. Dach got to be the one to announce his company's gift of 19,000 free tickets to the children of Washington: "If any of you have folks you think would like to see this exhibit and need that kind of help," he told the crowd, "please see me or any of my colleagues over here and we'll see what we can do to help."

Mayor Vince Gray soon arrived, and Barron stopped the program for a photo op. "My PR folks are telling me that we want to take a picture," he said, looking hopefully towards Gray. "If the Mayor would honor us with his presence...great, thanks sir!" Gray, of course, didn't have much of a choice: He couldn't not stand with the creators of the biggest exhibit on black history ever created. Even if it meant also standing and smiling with the folks he's asking to pay $12 an hour as a starting salary for employees, which is three dollars more than Walmart wants to pay.

Museum director Susan Norton had the most honest quote of the evening, with regard to Walmart's presence. "It's great timing, with you just announcing that you're coming into D.C.," she said. "This is an important exhibit for everyone."

  • Roman

    Well Tavis might not be accused of racism, but plenty still think he's a corporate sell-out, who engages in shady dealings with big corporations at the expense of communities he likes to say he's helpting. So this will actually not help Walmart all that much. I'm sure it will be a great exhibit and I will most likely go. But it will do nothing to stop people from criticizing Walmart and Tavis both.

  • michaeliceman

    Yea, I am not sure that Tavis gets the mileage among AA's that he used to....especially since he expressed clear disdain for then candidate Obama. 9But that is fodder for another day). Honestly, I thnk that Tavis needs his name attached to this project more than Walmart does. For real though, the folks at Walmart are not dummies. I am sure that they studied how Target came to be in Columbia Heights and they have a good idea on what they need to do. It is not checkers....it is chess...and Walmart is among the best players in the world.

  • Melissa Leonardo

    Geez! This is a positive exhibit for the African American community. Must something negative ALWAYS has to be sai about Brother Tavis? Where, ROMAN is your proof to your statement?

    Anyways, I digress... I've seen this exhibit in Los Angeles and was at the reception last night. I say, "Go on Brother! Go on!"

  • WardQueen

    Will there be any banners designating where the exhibit is, etc.? Walmart should contact Cupcake and Doughnut, the "cracked marketing team", who could hook them up on the cheap for $1800.00 per banner. Cupcake could do something really cool with the signature "DROP DEAD" theme.

    DROP DEAD imprinted

    DROP DEAD american

    DROP DEAD shady

  • Roman

    Ms. Leonardo, the author of this post wrote it in such a way to suggest that simply b/c the creator of this exhibit is Black, Walmart engaged in a masterful PR move that will alleviate criticism.

    My response simply points out it's not quite as simple as that. As for proof, simply google Tavis Smiley and Wells Fargo. I don't really care about what Tavis thinks of Obama. That was not the basis of my statement.

    Like I said, I think this exhibit is a great thing. But for the author to suggest that Walmart's sponsorship will mean less in the way of criticism or more in the way of support in the city is shortsighted. Perhaps the author was unaware of how some perceive Mr. Smiley after the Wells Fargo debacle, which is why she only focused on his skin color. Take issue with how the author framed the discussion.

  • michaeliceman

    Well I made the crack about Tavis and Obama, so let me clarify. It is not the simple matter of what Smiley "thinks" of Obama. It goes to WHAT he said about him, WHY he said it and the forum in which he chose to say it. Truth be told, to many it was stronger evidence of Tavis "selling out" than the whole Wells Fargo "wealth building but really subprime steering" fiasco. Tavis sells his influence and notoriety in the community and he has to pay the bills just like the rest of us. I like Tavis and I am not knocking his hustle. It makes sense for him to align himself with the deep pockets and resources of corporate America. But at the end of the day, Tavis is in it for Tavis.

    Oh, I saw the exhibit in Philly and it is a "must see." Very powerful.

    As far as Walmart, they know what they are doing. They have done this before. Mark my words, If Target was able to open a store in DC and have the City finance a parking garage under it, Walmart will get what they want.

  • Adrian Bent-Me

    "they've declined to divulge exactly how large, but I'd put it in the eleven-digit range"

    Lydia- Can you clarify. 11 digits is at minimum 10 billion dollars. I highly doubt that this figure is appropriate. Thanks.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Adrian Bent-Me -

    Good god. Yeah, it would be more like 8 digits. I'll go ahead and change that.

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