Walmart’s Christmas Site

by Harry on October 6, 2006

Susan Linn from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood was just on the Chris Evans show (of all places) describing Walmart’s new website, on which kids can choose a bunch of toys to add to a list which Walmart will email to their parents. Evans clearly didn’t believe Linn’s description of the site, especially the bit where she says that when you reject a toy one of the elves says that the other elf will lose his job. I think Linn is terrific, but I, too, thought she must be making that bit up, despite, like Evans, having already heard the astonishing accents the elves have been given.

No. Try it. It really is unbelievable. Come on folks, defend poor old Walmart. What good could come of this for the wider world?



josh 10.06.06 at 12:07 pm

Erm, I took the suggestion that one of the elves could (not will) lose his job as a joke — as indicated by the other elve’s ‘ha ha, very funny’ response.
That being said — the site is indeed vile.


Andrew Brown 10.06.06 at 12:11 pm

_What good could come of this for the wider world?_

The definitive proof that Americans cannot hear the difference between Australian and Estuary English?

Otherwise a mob of British peasants, with pitchforks and torches, forming outside the nearest Walmart would be fine.


Timothy Burke 10.06.06 at 12:19 pm

I think religious conservatives will enjoy the light-hearted gay banter between the elves.

I really rarely join in complaints against consumerism, Christmas-time or otherwise, but that definitely is a pretty bad site. From lots of perspectives. Though not, I hasten to add, for the queer elves.


Dylan 10.06.06 at 1:00 pm

Those “gay” accents are indistinguishable from a very large number of childrens’ cartoons voices over the last 20 years. What on earth is the concern here?


eweininger 10.06.06 at 1:04 pm

What good could come of this for the wider world?

Obviously, properly incentivized, the elves will shape up and work harder. Which is especially good for the wide world.


Adam Kotsko 10.06.06 at 1:17 pm

This is just the North Pole’s version of “Buy American.” I don’t see the problem.


roger 10.06.06 at 1:53 pm

Wow. All the mad magazine cartoons of my youth are coming true. Pay attention to today’s satire, because it is tomorrow’s reality!


MR. Bill 10.06.06 at 2:24 pm

“Mak” magazine indeed…
Jean Sheperd wrote a piece for “Mad” in the early years, a parody of the anticommunist/socialist screeds of the ’50s called “Beware of Creeping Meatballism” that evicerated the consumerist corformism of the time.

We should have taken him seriously…


radek 10.06.06 at 2:26 pm

Come on, you’re getting your panties in a twist over nothing.

Anyway. The advertising does provide useful information (though arguably to the wrong source). I had no idea what kind of kids’ toys were out there these days.

Also, either I’m too cynical or too optimistic but I think most kids would be sharp enough to find them elves vapid and stupid.


chris y 10.06.06 at 2:35 pm

Otherwise a mob of British peasants, with pitchforks and torches, forming outside the nearest Walmart would be fine.

Can I lead my British peasants to Asda? Otherwise I couldn’t afford the bus fares.


Eszter 10.06.06 at 3:11 pm

when you reject a toy one of the elves says that the other elf will lose his job

I don’t think that is a completely fair description of what happens when you go to the site. First, like Josh mentioned, it is in the tone of a joke. Second, it’s not something the elf says every time a user rejects a toy (the quoted description made it sound that way), it’s just a silly comment after the first rejection.

And hey, want an upside? At least you don’t have to say whether you are a boy or a girl when you start using the tool, which is better than most times when you walk into a store looking to buy a toy.

I’m not defending the site and I’m certainly not defending Walmart, but in this case I didn’t think the critique was completely legit.


anne 10.06.06 at 3:19 pm

Come on, be fair. They don’t call it ‘Christmas’!


harry b 10.06.06 at 4:07 pm

I may have misrepresented what Linn said; she may have said “could”. (I was listening in real time, and surprised by the item). I think the joke is lame. ANyway, that comment was a throwaway; the central complaint is that this is a case of Walmart particularly flagrantly leveraging the nag factor, which all kid marketers know about and try to use, and which is corrosive of family relationships. SO the central complaint is fair.

On telling them whether you’re a boy or a girl. I wondered about this, and tried out a couple of strategies. It seems that if you refuse a boy toy, you get offered a girl toy; and vice versa; once you have a pattern of boy toys that’s all you are offered. I only had two goes at it, and can’t be bothered to do more!


radek 10.06.06 at 5:18 pm

It seems that if you refuse a boy toy, you get offered a girl toy; and vice versa

And what exactly is a problem here? If you’re a girl who likes boy-toys (shut up Bevis!) then you get offered boy-toys. Apperantly you acknowledge that a meaningful distinction exists between boys’ toys and girls’ toys yet, if I’m reading you correctly, you implicitly complain that the firm actually tries to advertise to people who will be interested in their products, rather to folks who won’t. Makes sense to me.

And I don’t know anything about Linn but a lot of the articles on the CCFC website are just plain goofy. Of course someone blames globalization for the fact that kids like to play with toys. And corporations. But they’re pro ‘spiritual activism’, whatever the hell that is (article takes too long to download). But my favorite is “Stop marketing yummy food to children”. Eat your liver junior!

Toy companies and stores SHOULD advertise to children since they’re going to be the final consumers (no, it’s not a dirty word) of the products. Otherwise you’ll have parents buying their kids hoola hoops and pogo sticks – i.e. lame toys from their childhoods. Of course parents shouldn’t spoil their kids and teach’em about the advertisers self interested motives but you can’t blame a producer trying to sell what it actually produced.

All this is just your typical “for the sake of the children!”, “think of the children!”, “But, the children!!!!!!!!!” whining.


radek 10.06.06 at 5:21 pm

From the “Spiritual Activism” article;

Spiritual progressives need to make clear that although…”

The high content of self-righteous smugness in that phrase alone prevented me from reading any further.


radek 10.06.06 at 5:28 pm

Ay, this is too easy:

“We need to take childhood back from corporate America”

Yeah and hand the childhood over to nagging hippy prudes whose idea of fun for children is zen meditation.

“I am governor Jerry Brown,
my aura smiles and never frowns….”


Michael Sullivan 10.06.06 at 5:35 pm

On the “boy toy”/”girl toy” tip: it is fairly likely that there is no tag or label that says a toy is for boys or girls anywhere in the system.

I do not know anything about the Walmart system in particular, but it sounds like a typical correlated items/recommendation system, not dissimilar from what Amazon uses for its recommendations. It’s very simple in concept: when you declare an interest in one item (in this case, by putting it on your wish list), the system looks at other people who have bought that item, looks and what else they bought, and offers you the things that they have bought most commonly.

You could invert this system for the child rejecting toys — if they have no interest in this toy, show them a toy that nobody who bought this toy also bought.

If there are, in fact, toys that boys like/parents buy for boys, and toys that girls like/parents buy for girls, then such a system could easily and quickly become a de facto gender-linked system, without anyone ever really intending it to be, and without any explicit or implicit parts of the coding forcing it to be.

There is probably some interesting work to be done in the area of unexpected consequences of learning algorithms. I used to work for a search engine (Lycos) which unintentionally biased itself to catalog almost exclusively pornography. You see, it tried to find things that were “like” what people had previously succesfully found. And what is the internet for?


Clyde Mnestra 10.06.06 at 5:38 pm

If this reduces to the “nag factor,” I assume that the old JC Penney or Sears Christmas catalogs were beyond the pale. If this were done by a hipper toy company (or ThinkGeek) — and the jokes were better — were there be any complaints, or worrying about the need to find good for the wider world?


Claire 10.06.06 at 5:48 pm

I got the “out of a job” joke too – and the elf says “ha ha very funny – not”, NOT “ha ha very funny” – big intonation difference!

I said yes to a laptop as the first thing and then got a heap of trucks, which I rejected, and eventually got a make-over set, which I also rejected, then it was back to the trucks!

Something to give stressed out grad students, I think.


harry b 10.06.06 at 6:11 pm

Radek — no complaint implied in my comment. I was curious to figure out how they avoided boring kids by offering them the wrong kind of toy. Michael Sullivan explains to my satisfaction.

clyde — I can throw the catalogue out of my house, with no loss to my kids. Radek – In fact I’m not worried abut my kids — they don’t nag because they don’t watch commercial tv or use the internet without supervision, and they spend a good deal of time with me, their mother, and each other. They are happy, well-balanced, interested in school, have lots of friends, and hobbies. They are not considered wierd, or geeky, or anything. I do worry about kids with parents who think of them as appropriate targets for marketing though. Who my kids are going to have to figure out how to get along with. Of course, its a low-level priority compared with world poverty, drug-promotion, etc. But to me, trying to get kids to nag their parents is the work of someone who hasn’t got their priorities straight.


Walt 10.06.06 at 6:14 pm

radek, something tells me you have no children.


radek 10.06.06 at 6:37 pm

walt, something tells me you are not Chinese.


Eszter 10.06.06 at 6:50 pm

Harry, to be clear, I think there are a lot of problems with how various products are being marketed to kids and often the methods are disgusting. I just didn’t think the way this case was presented here was the best method to make that point.


Walt 10.06.06 at 7:45 pm

Well played, radek.


Clyde_Mnestra 10.06.06 at 9:22 pm

And you can’t ask them to not visit the site, or ignore the result? I completely sympathize with the objection to commercialization, but it seems like you’re singling one out, on what may have been a mistaken premise.

If someone develops the equivalent of a candy-free checkout line for the web, I’ll steer towards it, but until then . . .


Gil 10.07.06 at 1:23 am

What good can come from this for the wider world?

Entertainment, information, want satisfaction.

It seems to me that the only people who object to this are those who don’t realize how much sillier they are than the kids they think they’re protecting.


Andrew Brown 10.07.06 at 2:17 am

WADR: balls. Children do need protecting from certain sorts of social manipulation which they don’t yet understand.


harry b 10.07.06 at 7:55 am

I have this thing about not letting them stick their fingers in outlets, too.

Eszter — I don’t think I can win an argument about this. I heard about the site, then looked at it, and thought that it was hilarious. And unbelievable not because it is in itself especially disgusting (there’s plenty more disgusting) but because of the accent and the flagrancy of what it is doing. I know tv ads etc are all pretty flagrant too, but this one is easy to link to, entertainingly funny, and wears on its sleeve the motives of the creators.

Do the child liberationists think that 7 year olds should be allowed to vote? To drive? To be tried as adults? Why bother having parents at all, if they are so robust that nothing can possibly harm them? Or is it only large corporations which have no interest at all in their wellbeing and only want to make money offthem and their parents who can’t harm them?

clyde — yes, the truth is that my 9 year old has all the understanding and self-control necessary to avoid this site, or to take it for what it is. My 5 1/2 year old doesn’t. She’s not especially gullible and immature; she’s just 5 1/2. I’d like to think that everyone understands the developmental limitations of 5 1/2 year olds well enough to keep them off the web altogether, and to limit their TV watching to non-commercial TV or TV watched with adults. We have some evidence from comments here that that’s not true — and, in fact, I didn’t ned that evidence, because I have observed enough other 5 1/2 year olds being given free reign over how much and what TV/internet they consume to know what is going on. The folks at Walmart know that too and the site is designed to exploit that.


Eszter 10.07.06 at 9:59 am

Harry, all this raises an interesting question (or perhaps this has been your point all along): are such approaches on the Web worse than on TV? I guess part of the issue may be that on TV you may have certain messages come at you, but you aren’t interacting with those messages so a Web site like this can draw users in more and hold their attention longer leading to who-knows-what implications for relating to parents and merchandise, etc. The other side of that, however, is that visiting Web sites seems to have a more pro-active component than seeing TV ads. I guess this is an empirical question and I know of no studies on this, but one may assume it would take more energy to find the remote and change the channel away from an ad than to decide not to visit (or leave) a Web site.

Given these two differences (interactive feature that draws users in and pro-active feature that requires more action on the part of users) it’s hard to say how a site of this sort would compare to similar messages conveyed on TV or other media.


radek 10.07.06 at 9:56 pm

think that 7 year olds should be allowed to vote? To drive? To be tried as adults?


radek 10.07.06 at 10:10 pm

think that 7 year olds should be allowed to vote? To drive? To be tried as adults?

Oh no! I failed to realize how serious this was! Henry, thank you for the alert! The fact that Wal-Mart might actually try to sell its toys means that any day now we’ll have 4 yr olds voting for Bush and spiritual progressives everywhere will be forced into a tactical retreat against those of us who think that, well, its ultimately the parents who happen to have the money which can purchase the toys. And once this happens then KIDS WILL DRIVE!!!!!!! You’re freakin’ right, this is some sillpery slope that we don’t evem want to consider. And once this happens (again, again) kids drivin’ and all, then they’ll be tried as adults becuase they bought some silly toy from a WalMart commercial.
Next thing we know, all our children (oh no, think of the children!!!!) we’ll be on death row. This is our system is. Please reject it. You don’t want your kids to wind up on death row do you? So WalMart. Bad. Yes, Bad.


radek 10.08.06 at 12:17 am

Children do need protecting from certain sorts of social manipulation which they don’t yet understand.

I have this thing about not letting them stick their fingers in outlets, too

Yeah you’re right. Ozzy made them do it. I mean purchasing a toy from WalMart is pretty much equivalent to self induced electrocution. And listenin’ to Heavy Metal makes them worship Satan and sacrifice goats.

And once Ozzy and the Evil Corporations hold that gun to your head it don’t matter whether you’re Chinases or Polynesian. The chidlren! The children! Agghhhhhh nooooooo! Not the children!!!! They’re being advertised to!



harry b 10.08.06 at 8:02 am

well radek, now we’ve established that you do, indeed, apparently a priori, exempt commercial activity from the very possibility that it might harm children, but are not a silly child liberationist. Just someone who doesn’t recognise mildly whimsical humour, attempts to interpret your opponents in argument as uncharitably as possible, and can’t be bothered to figure out their names. Harry, not Henry. (Not offended by the way, everyone does it, even some of our gang).


J Edgar 10.08.06 at 2:07 pm

What the?
I opened the list of rejected toys and then closed it with a Done and the elves said
“I’m going to kick back in my Escalade”
“Can I come for a ride?”
The reply was either
“Playa (player?), please” or “Later, please”


radek 10.08.06 at 4:42 pm

Yeah, alright, I’ve gone off into troll territory. But hey, one over reaction deserves another.
Apologies on the name – that part was not intentional tomfoolery.


harry b 10.08.06 at 5:42 pm

Thanks radek, I appreciate the moderated tone. As to the name, I won’t say everyone does it but, well, surprisingly many do (and it bemuses, rather than offends me).


Scott Wood 10.08.06 at 6:01 pm

What good could come of this for the wider world?

Further evidence that some people get worked up over the strangest things?


Ginger Yellow 10.10.06 at 11:28 am

“The definitive proof that Americans cannot hear the difference between Australian and Estuary English?”

Actually the definitive prove is the third season of Arrested Development, which features a “Wee Britain” in Orange County populated almost entirely by Australians (and the South African Charlize Theron).


Ginger Yellow 10.10.06 at 11:28 am

Proof, dammit.


neil 10.10.06 at 4:22 pm

Thank you, radek, for that excellent example of self-righteous smugness.

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