Walmart commercials are becoming the new reality TV

I saw another new Walmart commercial that seems to be based on the new realities of the great recession and the 21st century family. 

In this one, the announcer says that it costs $45 on average to take a family (of four?) out to dinner.  Instead, the announcer suggests, with that Walmart mix of aggressive friendliness and friendly expertise, that mother (since it is a woman in the commercial) uses Birdseye frozen foods as the basis of a home-cooked meal once a month!!  The narrator concludes by triumphantly announcing that you’ll save $345 a year (the difference between the home-cooked meal and eating out times 12, I assume).

The Walmart message seems to have changed quite recently from the long-time exclamation to be happy because what you’re buying is cheap to a more nuanced plea: Walmart can help you deal with your family’s challenges.  The “you” is a woman, as there has yet to be a man shown in the two new commercials I have thus far seen.  (For an analysis of the other one, on Christmas without dad, see my November 25 blog).

But let’s peel away the explicit message, “we’ll help you save money while feeding your family” and see the underlying subtextual conversation.  I call it a conversation because Walmart is not trying to sell something.  Instead, it is responding to a reality, and in this case, the reality is the large extent to which U.S. families, especially in the middle class, eat meals out.  The storyline—once a month you cook in instead of eating out—reflects the trend of eating more meals away from home.  The average American now eats away from home six times a week.  Although the NPD Group reported in July that restaurant trips in 2009 are down almost 3% over 2008, Americans still spend 50% of their food dollars in restaurants and on average, eat out six times a week.

I’m going to end with an archetype, which is a kind of argument by anecdote.  The archetype is a generalized version of a group of people who share a number of characteristics, e.g., “he’s an archetypal first baseman—slow with power in his bat and a weak arm.” The classic archetype in politics over the past 40 years was Reagan’s “Welfare Queens.”  

The archetype I am imagining is a middle-class family in which both mother and father have professional jobs or a single mother is working and making a very good living, let’s call it six-figures in income in either case.  I have known a lot of families that fit this description and have the following weekly dinner menu: pizza one night; McDonald’s or Wendy’s on another night; some family style restaurant a third night—could be Eat ‘n Park, Denny’s or even Olive Garden.  Then there’s take-out Chinese.  We still haven’t gotten to mom and dad having a night out alone at Chez Fourstar.  Just as the subtext of one of the Walmart commercials is an appeal to the single mother, so is this one that mentions Birdseye meant to appeal to families that eat out all the time.  Otherwise, why the stress on not eating out once a month?

In its subtext, Walmart has begun, I believe for the very first time, to segment the marketplace and try to appeal to specific subgroups that have special concerns and needs.  That makes the new commercials a form of reality TV.

12 comments on “Walmart commercials are becoming the new reality TV
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  12. paul sheldon says:

    A good post, but I have one comment about how the phrase “middle class” is often used nowadays to describe most everybody and so has almost no meaning. The conventional definition of middle class is based on the median household income. (There are other possible definitions, but I think this that this is the one you had in mind, because you particularly mention income level.) You refer to a “middle-class family in which both mother and father have professional jobs or a single mother is working and making a very good living; let’s call it six-figures in income in either case.”

    When my children were growing up, I used to explain to them that we were financially “middle class” because our family income was typically only slightly higher than the median income level reported in government publications. For more than four decades I received fairly regular raises that closely tracked the increase in the cost of living, so that when I retired at the end of last year my total annual income (including summer work) was about $60,000 (up from initially $8,000 plus summer work). This supported a family of five. For some, that’s a good reason not to get a Ph.D. and go into college academics. Personally, this is no complaint, because I come from a line of well-educated medium-income families and knew what I was getting into.

    As David Leonhardt reported in A Decade With No Income Gains (New York Times, September 10, 2009):

    “…the big news from the Census Bureau’s annual report on income, poverty and health insurance, which was released this morning. Median household fell to $50,303 last year, from $52,163 in 2007. In 1998, median income was $51,295. All these numbers are adjusted for inflation.”

    I realize that break-outs by state and family size can produce a distribution of figures relating to this central figure, but I will go with these census figures.

    I have found it interesting that common ad hominem attacks against my socialist views tend to follow two mutually exclusive arguments relative to my financial situation.

    1. I only support socialism for personal reasons. I am too rich to be a socialist and am only an academic faking any solidarity with the average worker’s financial situation.

    2. I only support socialism for personal reasons. I have so little money that I am a socialist only because I want to get other folks’ hard earned money for myself.

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