Professor Flags Wal-Mart for Capitalizing on Patriotism

Jen Scanlon
Jennifer Scanlon

Story posted February 11, 2005

Associate Professor Jennifer Scanlon, director of Bowdoin's Gender and Women's Studies Program, delivered a penetrating critique of retailing giant Wal-Mart at her Karofsky Faculty Encore Lecture on January 28. " 'Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore': U.S. Consumers, Wal-Mart and the Commodification of Patriotism," was the first Common Hour talk of the new semester and was delivered to a standing-room-only crowd at Kresge Auditorium.

Scanlon detailed efforts to equate American patriotism with consumerism in the months following the 9/11 attacks, citing President's Bush's advice to the American public: "We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't - where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop."

Wal-Mart, the world's largest company, seized on this public sentiment, argued Scanlon, by beefing up its red-white-and-blue displays and linking its founder Sam Walton to Uncle Sam. The media further propagated the mega-retailer's link with patriotism-turned-consumerism by repeatedly reporting on Wal-Mart's boosted sales of American flags.

The media further propogated the mega-retailer's link with patriotism ... by repeatedly reporting on Wal-Mart's boosted sales of American flags.

"In and outside of Wal-Mart, flag-inspired clothing, decorative goods, and collectibles served as props for the performance of patriotism," noted Scanlon, adding: "In an ingenious post 9/11 service effort that marked the company again as truly, deeply American, Wal-Mart invited citizens-consumers to the store to dispose of their worn American flags, arguing that the company's centrality in communities made it a convenient place for people to part with worn flags in appropriate, respectful ways. Perhaps flag disposers also proved themselves good customers of new flags and other consumer goods. "

The net effect of this marketing was a boost in Wal-Mart's public profile. The company was ranked the most admired company in the United States in 2003 and 2004 - despite being plagued by lawsuits and scandals over unfair female employee compensation.

Scanlon detailed Wal-Mart's reportedly unfair wage and marketing strategies for women; its union-busting activities; and the economic drain to communities that have Wal-Mart Supercenters, which include supermarkets. "With the advances of Wal-Mart, two things tend to happen," she said. "First, some supermarkets close, leaving employees the option of a roughly fifty percent reduction in pay if they move to Wal-Mart. Second, other supermarkets, trying to stay open and compete with Wal-Mart, cut salaries."

In a question-and-answer session following her talk, Scanlon said her goal with the research was not simply to implicate Wal-Mart in a poor performance of patriotism. "The American public," as she put it, "eagerly supports a culture in which everyday heroes of 9/11 and after are valorized in public discourse but unappreciated as workers. The American public and Wal-Mart are complicit in a performance of patriotism in which consumerism stands in for more concrete and difficult civic work."

Scanlon's Common Hour talk will be included as a chapter in the forthcoming book, The Selling of 9 /11; How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity, ed. Dana Heller, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. The book includes essays that take critical stock of the role that consumer goods, media and press outlets, commercial advertising, marketers, and corporate public relations have played in shaping cultural memory of a national tragedy.

Common Hour is a weekly public forum featuring speakers and performances that reflect on concerns relating to contemporary life and culture. The Karofsky Lecturer is chosen annually by Bowdoin seniors from among the College's faculty members.

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