EARLIER THIS YEAR, an unusual series of Wal-Mart ads began ricocheting through cyberspace.
In one, a “Wal-Mart associate” named Betty Johnson chirps, “I love working at Wal-Mart, even though they pay me almost nothing.” In another, a Hispanic woman is folding laundry in her back yard. “It’s difficult raising five boys, so it was a happy day for us when Jose began to work for Wal-Mart.” Cut to a skinny teenager bent over sewing machine. “Now Jose makes 40¢ an hour for a 70-hour work week.”
These ads weren’t sponsored by Wal-Mart. They’re part of the viral marketing strategy for “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” a scathing documentary by Robert Greenwald, the director of “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism.”
Greenwald’s off-the-grid buzz campaign has more in common with Howard Dean’s presidential campaign than your average movie release.
His doc, which will be released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD over the first two weeks of November, can’t be found on Neilsen EDI’s release calendar. There have been no TV or radio ads. Studios won’t touch it, mainstream media bookers have been reluctant to push it, and Wal-Mart, whose 2005 U.S. marketing budget has been listed at $1.4 billion, is doing all it can to squash it.
But Greenwald has come up with a surprisingly effective alternate distribution and marketing strategy. He’s created a loose-knit, national network of grass-roots activists, bloggers and culture jammers united in their contempt for the world’s largest retailer, who’ve joined forces to put the movie on the cultural map.
THE DEAN CAMPAIGN, which raised millions of dollars through a Friendster-like network of donors, captured the attention of campaign consultants across the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, it also captivated Madison Avenue.
If a virtual network of Deaniacs could vault an insurgent presidential candidate to the top of the polls, could the same be done for a new brand of toothpaste or underarm deodorant, a new cell phone or SUV?
If that sounds far-fetched, don’t forget that companies like P&G and PepsiCo, along with record labels and Hollywood studios, are buying up real estate on virtual networks like My Space and Yahoo, all in an effort to get people talking about their product at barbecues, PTA meetings and yoga studios.
Greenwald has taken things one step further. Through his blog, Robertgreenwald.org, he’s created his own version of My Space. He recruited thousands of “field producers” who shot footage of their communities (boarded-up storefronts, etc.) that he’s incorporated into the final cut. These and other volunteers will hold thousands of house parties next month to screen the film in their communities.
The contributors feed off each other’s ideas using the bulletin boards on the movie’s Web site, which exhorts users to “join the revolution.” One suggests the premiere be held in Bentonville, Ark.; another urges people to slip the DVD into every DVD player in the AV section of Wal-Mart; another offers to plant a high-powered projector in a Wal-Mart parking lot and project the movie on the side of the building.
Fittingly, Greenwald is releasing the film, as he did “Outfoxed,” through a creative commons license allowing his field producers to remix the movie, incorporating their own footage back into it. Greenwald even held an online competition to name the company that’s producing and releasing the film: It’s called Brave New Films.
BRAVE NEW FILMS, which releases its films simultaneously in theaters and on DVD, isn’t likely to win any new friends at ShowEast.
“The traditional, one-step-at-a-time in a culture with an attention span of two minutes doesn’t make sense,” Greenwald told me.
But his latest movie may hold a certain morbid interest for Hollywood execs who’ve spent years and untold sums commuting to Bentonville to promote their products and curry favor with Wal-Mart managers.
“The fear factor connected to Wal-Mart has been shocking to me,” Greenwald said. “In our community, there are folks of all political persuasions who are frightened to take it on. They’re an aggressive punitive company that is not shy about hitting, pounding and suing. Everyone behind the scenes is wishing me well.”