Walmart has taken some unprecedented steps in recent years, from energy efficiency initiatives to wage increases to employee training initiatives. The redirected path also is evident in a recent advertising campaign. Whereas Walmart traditionally has made the low prices on the vast range of products it carries the central message in its marketing, the new campaign features the retailer’s CEO prominently, and it focuses on the company’s promise for workers rather than for customers.

In the 30-second spot, CEO Doug McMillon introduces himself (“Hi, I’m Doug”), and then the camera pans to him scrolling through his social media pages to find posts by employees. He clicks on Instagram links and pictures; quick shots show comments from his account handle, such as congratulations to a Walmart employee who won a performance award, as well as responses that he has gotten from followers—both praise and criticisms.

The spot is designed to highlight Walmart’s commitment to “taking care of the people that take care of you.” This effort to burnish its reputation as an employer likely represents a response to continued criticisms that the retailer pays insufficient wages, as well as past ethical scandals in which employees were forced to work overtime without additional pay.

As a spokesperson, McMillon has several advantages. He has worked his way up Walmart’s corporate ladder, starting in a warehouse in the early 1980s, which makes his claims that the retailer cares about employees more credible. In addition, he is relatively young and attractive, such that he might appeal to a potentially wide audience.

But he also is still the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world. Thus, immediately following the release of the advertising spot, online searches by people seeking to learn how much money he earned spiked. In turn, many of the social media responses to the advertisement complain that someone who earned $19.8 million in the last fiscal year was unlikely to be able to understand the needs of hourly employees.

Another consideration comes from history, which shows that relatively few CEOs appear in their companies’ commercials. The reason has much to do with the threat to the company after a CEO leaves. Papa John might be a familiar face to pizza buyers, but when George Zimmer was ousted as the head of The Men’s Wearhouse, the clothing retailer was forced to quickly adopt a radically different advertising approach (without using Zimmer’s famous “I guarantee it” tagline). If Doug McMillon were to fall out of favor with Walmart’s board, would his starring role in a Walmart advertisement come back to haunt the retailer?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did the advertisement starring Walmart’s CEO work improve its image? Why or why not?