business news in context, analysis with attitude

We had a story yesterday about how Wal-Mart is being sued by a group of Maryland customers because the retailer stocks a CD by the rock group Evanescence in which during one song the group drops the F-bomb.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages of up to $74,500 for each of the Maryland customers who bought the CD at Wal-Mart. They say that Wal-Mart purports to sell only “clean music,” and that it knew the word was on the CD but continued to stock it anyway. The CD does not carry a parental advisory warning of the offending word. Wal-Mart said it would not pull the CD off its shelves, but would investigate the allegations.

We commented: As a parent, we feel that we can’t hold retailers responsible for the music, videos or books that they sell. We have to be responsible for helping our kids to make good judgments about the cultural choices they make, and we have to monitor those choices – because knowing what is going on is part of a parent’s job. (If we heard the F-bomb on a CD that our 10-year-old daughter was listening to, we’d turn it off, take it away, and explain that it is inappropriate and why. That’s our job, not Wal-Mart’s.)

We hope that Wal-Mart won’t bow to this kind of nonsensical pressure. The folks down in Bentonville ought to have the moral courage to tell these customers that it is not the retailer’s job to censor the choices available on its shelves, but rather the parent’s job to mold children of good character.

We have no problem with parental warning labels on CDs, and maybe that is something that Wal-Mart (and other retailers) could rectify.

What these parents are doing has nothing to do with decency. Rather, it has to do with craven cynical opportunism. You can tell that because they’ve assigned the figure of $74,500 as the price of their children’s virtue.


One MNB user responded:

KC, the point of the case is that Wal-Mart has taken a stand that it will only sell "Family Friendly" music. So, if a CD needs an "Explicit Lyrics" CD, then Wal-Mart's policy prevents them from selling it. Wal-Mart did not label the CD although it censored the profanity from the same song on it's website.

The family feels deceived and rightfully so. I don't care whether or not Wal-Mart sells CD's with explicit lyrics, but either way, they should follow their own policies and not abuse their consumers' trust.


MNB user Augie Ray wrote:

While I agree with the sentiments in your response to the Wal-Mart/Evanescence news (that parents are responsible for the entertainment their children access), I think you missed the point. There is a significant irony at work here, and in the end Wal-Mart has no one but itself to blame.

When retail giants hold themselves up as arbiters of taste and propriety, they subject themselves to significant risk of exactly this sort of problem. Wal-Mart has enjoyed a reputation in certain circles as being a helper for parents--willing to stop the slide of our culture through its censorship of "inappropriate" books and CDs--even though its censorship often seemed more focused on supporting its brand to its target demographic than truly standing up for morality.

But in taking the role of self-appointed censor of the material it carries, Wal-Mart ignored the risk of such a strategy. You cannot tell the world that the items you carry are chaste without risking someone finding something unchaste on your store shelves. If you are going to make an implicit (or even explicit) promise to parents that "dangerous" content won't be found in your store, you darn well better expect to be taken to task when you sell something someone might find inappropriate.

And what a slippery slope that is--one moment you're barring a book for a parody image of naked Supreme Court Justices, and the next you're being sued by the very people you thought you were "protecting."

And what is best about this particular situation is the irony: the people suing could do the exact opposite of what they intend. Wal-Mart, rather than
caving to these people and removing a single "offensive" CD, may (and perhaps should) decide their self-censorship is more risk than reward and cease it,
allowing the same content one can find at Target, BN, and Borders.

While I sympathize with parents regarding the difficulty of protecting our children in this age, I cannot help but feel this could be a blow for freedom.

I am far more concerned about the dangers posed by arbitrary censorship by the largest retailer in the country than I am about parents having to take the
time and effort to review the CDs to which their children listen.

Just my two cents.


MNB user Brad Morris wrote:

I agree with your view that it is the role of parents, not retailers, to decide what is best for our children. I also agree that this is nonsense and should be thrown out of court quickly. As politicians speak of tort reform, I can think of few examples that better illustrate “frivolous lawsuit” than this.

At the same time, I think Wal-Mart may have brought this on itself. Their own product stocking choices (censorship) may be backfiring. Wal-Mart has made it company policy to remove from shelves products they feel their shoppers may not approve of. This includes very well publicized instances involving books and magazines. It has become obvious that Wal-Mart likes to be thought of as a moral protector its customers. Might it not be assumed that some of their shoppers could actually think that this was more than marketing; that Wal-Mart was making sure that only wholesome content made it into their stores? You can not claim to be a champion for decency on the one hand, then plead that is isn’t your role with the other.


But another MNB user took a different approach:

I think Wal-Mart is getting hit a little too hard on this one... (For once). If it is such a big deal, why don't they go after the label company that "forgot" to put the parental advisory label on the CD. My thought on this one is that they knew Wal-Mart would not sell it if it had the parental label on it and didn't want to lose those sales, so they conveniently left it off.

And yet another MNB user wrote:

One foul word, in one song, in one CD, in a store that stocks hundreds, perhaps thousands of CD’s. How is it possible for Wal-Mart to censor-check the content of every piece of media it sells? That group of Maryland customers should have no case.

We actually think there are two different issues at work here.

One is the legal question. In our view, and we have no legal background, these parents ought to be tossed out of court and forced to take parenting classes. Blaming Wal-Mart and trying to force them to accept legal and financial culpability strikes us as a crock.

The other question is one of policy. When we argued yesterday that Wal-Mart ought to tell these parents to take a hike, we did it mindful of the fact that the company clearly is being hoisted on its own petard. (By the way, did you know that a petard is a small explosive, and when one gets hoisted upon one’s own petard it means you’re blown up by your own explosive? But we digress…)

We have long argued that while retailers certainly have the right to decide what they will and will not sell, such a position sets them up for criticism and attack when they do not meet these standards. It also leaves them open to criticism about where they draw the line.

Why does Wal-Mart refuse to sell “America: The Book” but will sell a CD or a DVD with the occasional vulgarity? Why does Wal-Mart sell video games that celebrate violence? Or books in which characters use the F-bomb? Or guns? Or tobacco products?

The question is whether Wal-Mart is being sincere and consistent, and has just been caught in a mistake, or whether in fact its policy is hypocritical and cynical, more a matter of public relations than philosophy.

We won’t resolve that here. Different people will have different views.

But the matter is amplified in visibility and importance because Wal-Mart is not just a retailer, but the biggest retailer in the country, a retailer that exercises enormous cultural influence. And we worry about any entity with that kind of sway, especially when it seems to suppress rather than celebrate choice and diversity.
KC's View: