New Wal-Mart ads tout manufacturing return, the ‘Working Man’

story by Michael Tilley

Punctuated by the high-energy rock riffs of Rush and massaged by the distinct baritone voice of advertising pitch man Mike Rowe, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has in recent days placed a high-profile advertising commitment on the company’s pledge to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S. 

Jim Karrh, a marketing and public relations advisor with more than 20 years experience and owner of Little Rock-based Karrh & Associates, said Wal-Mart has certainly “reached a huge mass audience” with their manufacturing initiative through the new ads. (The three ads can be viewed at the end of this story.)

“They have pushed the chips to the center of the table,” Karrh said, using a gambling reference to suggest the company is now “all in” publicly with the effort.

On Monday (Feb. 10), Wal-Mart spokeswoman Katie Cody said there have been “more than 2,000 job commitments” as a result of the effort to buy products from U.S. manufacturing operations. More are expected. Cody said more than 40 different Wal-Mart departments are “actively working” with existing or potential suppliers to find opportunities to source products from U.S. manufacturing operations.

Some of those 2,000 commitments include 500 jobs related to the planned production of televisions in Winnsboro, S.C., and 250 jobs planned to begin in March 2014 at a shoe production plant in Hazelhurst, Ga.

The 30-second television ads – which have found air time during broadcasts of the 2014 Winter Olympics – attempt to show the early results of the 2013 pledge by Wal-Mart to buy an additional $50 billion in American products over the next decade. Bentonville-based Wal-Mart estimates cumulatively over the next decade the investment will total $250 billion. The Boston Consulting Group predicts that this $250 billion investment will create one million jobs, including the jobs in manufacturing and related services.

Wal-Mart conducted a manufacturing summit in Orlando, Fla., in August 2013, with an estimated 500 suppliers attending and representatives from 38 state governments, including eight governors. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe was one of the eight attending. A 2014 summit is set for Aug. 14-15 in Denver, Colo.

The initiative has already proven beneficial to Wal-Mart’s home region. Redman & Associates in October announced a $6.5 million investment to relocate its ride-on toy manufacturing business from Shanghai to Northwest Arkansas over the next three years. Redman operates a sales office in Bentonville that employs 16 people. Moving the manufacturing to Northwest Arkansas is estimated to create 17 jobs the first year, and ramping up to 74 by the time the entire operation comes online in Rogers.

Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon announced Jan. 23, 2014, a $10 million innovation fund from the retailer and its foundation to spur new U.S. manufacturing commitments that lead to job creation. The fund will provide grants to innovators in the manufacturing sector and seeks to create new processes, ideas, and jobs that support America’s growing manufacturing footprint.

The three television ads made public by Wal-Mart are busy with alternating scenes of factory work with hard hats, eye protection, sparks flying, empty bottles moving along an assembly line, forklifts moving pallets and impact wrenches buzzing. 

The “I Am a Factory” ad featuring the voice of Mike Rowe begins with the image of a closed manufacturing site, complete with a padlocked gate.

“At one time, I made things,” emerges the voice of Rowe. “I was mighty and then one day, the gears stopped turning.”

As as factory work begins, Rowe continues: “But I am still here, and I believe I will rise again. We will build things, and build families, and build dreams. It’s time to get back to what America does best.”

The ad then closes out with the Wal-Mart message: “Over the next ten years, we’re putting $250 billion to work to help create new manufacturing jobs in America.” And that’s followed by Rowe saying, “Because work is a beautiful thing.”

The “Lights On” ad carries the viewer 10 seconds into a dark space. The action begins when a worker turns on the lights. Doors open, coffee makers are prepped and pallets are stacked and prepped for loading.

“Actions are louder than words,” the ad notes.

Although the Rush song “Working Man” makes the point for Wal-Mart in the title, the lyrics of the song have historically been considered an anthem for the working man who can’t seem to rise above their economic class no matter how hard they work.

The song lyrics, included in the Wal-Mart ad, note: “I got no time for living, yes, I’m working all the time. Seems to me I could live my life a lot better than I think I am. I guess that’s why they call me, they call me the working man.”

Some comments on Wal-Mart’s YouTube page note the issue between the song title and the lyrics.

“I think you missed the point of the song,” noted one comment.

That was followed by, “Agreed. It's almost as bad as when Reagan used Born in the USA for his 84 campaign before Springsteen told him to knock it off.”

Another comment mentioned Rush’s home.

“The irony of Rush being Canadian is killing me but otherwise this is a fantastic spot and a great tribute the all the Working Men and Women. Well done.”

Cody, with Wal-Mart, said the imagery of the ad is the point of the message.

“The important thing is the energy of the music and highlighting the people working in the factory,” Cody explained.

No matter the irony or lyrical message, Karrh said it’s a smart move by Wal-Mart. He said his initial impression is that Wal-Mart is using the ads to also return to the company’s “foundational Americana” message. He said the ads could be seen as not only the promotion of returning jobs to America, but of Wal-Mart “getting back to basics and back to what is authentic to them as well.”

“I immediately thought, ‘OK good,’” Karrh said after his first viewing of the ad with Mike Rowe. “They’re bringing back a piece of the Wal-mart story that has always been true to them, but I think it got lost and minimized a bit over the years. … I hope they stick with it.”

Cody declined to provide detail on the ad cost and air time purchased, but did say that broadcast time has been bought for all three ads.