Sign the petition challenging Walmart to stop its fear mongering and demonizing Congo – click HERE
by Rebecca Cech
Move over, Nivea ad, there’s a new publicity gaffe in town. On Aug. 9, 2011, Walmart released a video (posted below) for their back-to-school campaign series titled “Urgent Care.” The commercial, originally posted on their Walmart YouTube channel, features three teenage boys communicating by smart phone to identify an unknown skin condition. The affected boy leans over while his friend lifts his shirt with the end of a golf club to inspect an area on his back. Meanwhile, a third boy at another location browses a “Web MD” page on leprosy, asking if the boy with symptoms has “been in the Congo recently.”
When the answer is “no,” he responds: “OK, well it still might be contagious. I think maybe you should call 911.” Upon hearing this, the boy inspecting the rash recoils and begins to clean the end of his golf club as though it were contaminated. The commercial is only 30 seconds long, but, in its brevity, it manages to mislead its viewers, entrench damaging stereotypes and endorse a cavalier attitude about the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The commercial manages to mislead its viewers, entrench damaging stereotypes and endorse a cavalier attitude about the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This commercial offers up a variety pack of bad information. Research reveals no mention of Congo – either one of them; there are two – anywhere on the Web MD page that the boy references in the ad. Leprosy is a disease neither unique to Congo nor currently a high risk in the country. In fact, the World Health Organization site states that the DR Congo reached a stage of elimination for endemic leprosy in 2007.
Without a medical rationale for a special connection between the country and leprosy, why would The Martin Agency, which produced this ad for Walmart, represent Congo as the source of the boy’s disease? It’s likely they chose Congo for affect alone – because of its associative power to conjure everything frightening to the mainstream American imagination.
Why would Congo be represented as the source of the boy’s disease? because of its associative power to conjure everything frightening to the mainstream American imagination.
Disaster thrillers like the film, “Outbreak” (1995), have encouraged this popular idea, ensuring that the Congo continues to serve as a potent symbol of contagion. This portrayal has a long history and traces back to early travelogues and turn-of-the-century representations like the novel, “Heart of Darkness.”
Conrad’s novel, at least, had the sense to demonstrate that a great deal of death and disease in Congo has come at the hands of people hungry for profit. He called the ivory trade in Congo “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” Nowadays, instead of providing ivory for leisure class items like billiard balls and piano keys, Congo provides minerals for a technological cornucopia, as modern processors require coltan and Congo has an estimated two thirds of the world’s reserve.
A great deal of death and disease in Congo has come at the hands of people hungry for profit.
Walmart cannot prove that the phones it sells are free from the minerals fueling conflict in the Congo, making it possible that the corporation actually contributes to the problems there. Either way, Walmart’s attitude is part of the problem. To reference the poor health conditions in the Congo offhandedly encourages viewers to see disease there as a natural characteristic of the country rather than a symptom of particular problems.
When you’re driven off your land because your homestead is sitting on precious minerals and somebody wants access to them, and when you subsequently end up far away from home, underfed, exhausted and left no alternative but to live in close quarters and in sub-par conditions with thousands of others in the same position, what is the cause of the disease you contract in that displacement camp?
Making that illness seem like the result of “uncivilized” or “backward” conditions would be a serious distortion of the truth. There are specific and revealing causes for conditions that support disease, namely conflict and poverty. The public deserves to know that now, as in Conrad’s day, exploitative and destabilizing activities are as much to blame for conditions of disease in Congo as bacteria or viruses.
There are specific and revealing causes for conditions that support disease, namely conflict and poverty. Exploitative and destabilizing activities are as much to blame for conditions of disease in Congo as bacteria or viruses.
Besides encouraging negative stereotypes about the Congolese, the Walmart ad also stigmatizes millions who suffer from disease. This is not only insensitive but contributes to medical risk. On its page devoted to leprosy in Congo, for instance, The Leprosy Mission Australia explains that: “Fear and stigma associated with leprosy causes many patients to hide out undiagnosed in remote areas. This tragically leads to severe disabilities and irreversible damage to their bodies unless they can get the medical treatment to stop progression of the disease.”
The public needs to understand that “leprosy is not highly infectious.” Why was it featured in the ad as such? Again, it seems most likely that the Martin Agency simply chose leprosy out of a heebie jeebies hat, because the reality of this condition seemed remote from American experience and conjured ideas of untouchability.
What if the boy had been browsing the Web MD page for AIDS instead? The uproar would have been immediately deafening. Walmart and the Martin Agency could probably have anticipated that the estimated 1 million people living with HIV in the United States as well as their family, friends and people of decency all over would immediately recognize the harm in that kind of message and raise the alarm.
It is clearer in the American imagination that, where AIDS is concerned, “Stigma is of utmost concern because it is both the cause and effect of secrecy and denial, which are both catalysts for HIV transmission.” The same logic can apply to many diseases, transmissible or not. Attitudes like the one in the Walmart ad erode public empathy and shut down lines of communication vital to those in need of care.
Attitudes like the one in the Walmart ad erode public empathy and shut down lines of communication vital to those in need of care.
Anger about this ad has begun to go public and grow some legs. So far, the loudest dissenters have been several of the approximately 62,000 Congolese living in the United States who are mobilizing to express their discontent. Concerned citizens have been organizing on Facebook, discussing protests and boycotts. Activists have called for Walmart to take down the ad and issue an apology, and the giant retailer has begun to show signs of recognizing its misstep.
By 11 a.m. on Aug. 24, the offending ad was no longer available where it had been officially uploaded on YouTube. However, eyewitness reports confirm the commercial’s airing on TV, so the problem is not limited to internet exposure.
A simple retraction is unlikely to satisfy those who recognize the impact of this public misinformation. For now, the ire seems directed at Walmart, but the Martin Agency, AT&T and Web MD are also culpable for their part in producing and endorsing the ad. We will have to wait and see if these companies can turn this blunder into an opportunity to show “urgent care” for the injured dignities of those who already battle public stigma and prejudice.
My recommendation to them: Quit aiding miseducation and take your “back-to-school” commitment seriously. Study your mistake and be responsible for what you learn.
Rebecca Cech authors www.congostory.org, using culture, art, scholarly studies in post-colonialism and four generations of family life in Congo to inform her advocacy.
Open letter to Walmart from Kambale Musavuli, Friends of the Congo
Chief Executive Officer
Walmart Home Office
702 SW Eighth Street
Bentonville, Arkansas 72716-8611
RE: WALMART BACK-TO-SCHOOL AD “URGENT CARE” BY MARTIN AGENCY
Dear Mr. Duke:
My name is Kambale Musavuli. I am a Congolese human rights activist and spokesperson for Friends of the Congo. I am writing to lodge a formal complaint against your “Urgent Care” advertisement released Aug. 9, 2011, on the web and on TV networks as part of the Walmart back-to-school campaign. This ad, created by the Martin Agency, constitutes a serious offense to Congolese people in particular and Africans in general.
The ad misinforms viewers and customers alike, encourages prejudicial attitudes toward Africans, and desensitizes its audience to the greatest humanitarian crisis at the dawn of the 21st century, which is grossly under-reported and widely misunderstood.
1. Misinformation: The ad depicts a student researching WebMD on his smart phone as a means to diagnose a friend’s skin condition. In the process, he suggests that the Congo is either a unique or high-risk source for leprosy and that he has pulled this information from the WebMD website. Research reveals no mention of Congo on WebMD’s leprosy page. The World Health Organization’s site referenced by WebMD states that leprosy in the Congo reached a stage of elimination in 2007. The same page confirms that 100 cases of leprosy occur annually in the U.S., meaning that one would not have needed to leave the country for exposure. Viewers are wrongly encouraged to associate leprosy with the Congo without any logical basis for the connection.
2. Prejudice: The ad is only 30 seconds in length, making full characterization of any place or people logistically impossible. However, the Congo has long held a space in Western imagination as a symbol of fear and contagion. With this historical and cultural context, referring to the country as shorthand for disease further entrenches prejudicial stereotypes. The ad encourages us to laugh at the idea that a Caucasian American middle-class freshman would travel to the Congo. The joke hinges on the improbability of his visit, either because of the boy’s race, nationality, income or age. Congo’s undesirability as a destination remains a strong overtone throughout. Viewers are encouraged to think of the Congo solely as a place to be avoided and feared.
The Congo has long held a space in Western imagination as a symbol of fear and contagion. Referring to the country as shorthand for disease further entrenches prejudicial stereotypes.
3. Desensitization: The media has not adequately covered the conflict in the Congo, despite the fact that it has the most human casualties worldwide since World War II. Nearly 6 million people have died in the last 15 years of Congo’s conflict, many from disease because of poor living conditions and displacement. Part of the reason why the conflict receives little coverage is the lack of interest by American viewers. By referring to disease in Congo as a joke, the ad encourages viewers to dismiss conditions of struggle and conflict in the country as “normal” and, therefore, unworthy of attention, intensifying an already serious case of inattention and mis-education about Congo in particular and Africa in general. In fact, it plays into the vilest stereotypes about Africa that desensitize Americans about the place and the people.
While no one means to treat advertisements as public service announcements, they nevertheless function as strong public messages. Ads have power, and this one constitutes a particularly aggressive form of ignorance. It is questionable to benefit as a corporation from the sale of technological products like smart phones while suggesting publicly that the poor living conditions in Congo are an unrelated misfortune, especially when metals found in the phone may play a role in fueling the conflict in the Congo.
Ads have power, and this one constitutes a particularly aggressive form of ignorance.
I am just one of thousands of supporters, Americans and Congolese, demanding that Walmart take responsibility for its negative impact with this ad. At minimum, Walmart should:
1. Remove the “Urgent Care” ad from all forms of media circulation (TV networks, web etc.),
2. Issue a press release delivering a public apology to the Congolese people about the ad, and
3. Educate and sensitize a.) your staff (especially the Marketing Department who approved the release of this ad) and b.) your customers by providing teaching materials that explain the situation in the Congo and what Walmart is doing to practice responsible sourcing as it relates to the Congo’s mineral resources.
Through your reparative actions, I ask you to fulfill your 2010 statement that Walmart “will make the absolute most of our opportunity and capacity to lead as a retailer, as a company, and as people who truly care about serving and helping other people around the world.” Thousands of people eagerly await your response and evidence of this commitment.
Friends of the Congo
Editor’s note: The letter was delivered on Monday, Aug. 29, and signed by M. AREEN at the Walmart office, according to Fedex.
Kambale Musavuli, a Congolese native, is spokesperson and student coordinator for Friends of the Congo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on twitter @kambale and visit him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/kambalemusavuli. To learn more about the Congo and the Walmart protest, visit http://www.congojustice.org and https://www.facebook.com/groups/CongoAdProtest/.