Wal-Mart apologized yesterday after its retail Web site directed potential buyers of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Planet of the Apes" DVDs to also consider purchasing DVDs with African American themes.
The world's largest retailer said in a statement that it was "heartsick" over the racially offensive grouping and that the site was linking "seemingly random combinations of titles."
"It's just simply not working correctly," said Mona Williams, vice president of corporate communications for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The company said it was alerted to the problem early yesterday afternoon after word began spreading among bloggers. When visitors to Walmart.com requested "Planet of the Apes: The Complete TV Series" on DVD, four other movies were recommended under the heading "Similar Items." Those films included "Martin Luther King: I Have A Dream/Assassination of MLK" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."
Williams said similar titles were called up when the DVD of the movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was requested. There were three such combinations involving those two movies and African Americans films, she said.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart said in a written statement that it removed the combinations at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. By last evening, "Planet of the Apes" was linked to DVDs of the fifth season of the CBS comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the 10th season of the NBC hit "Friends." The company said it planned to shut down its entire cross-selling system overnight.
Like most other major retail sites, including Amazon.com, Wal-Mart's site directs users searching for movies to other titles that might interest them; Wal-Mart calls the process "mapping." Wal-Mart said last night that the system was malfunctioning but did not explain why or how.
Williams said the company has "absolutely no evidence" that the problem was intentional. A company statement said that the site had also linked African American films to the movies "Home Alone" and "The Powerpuff Girls." Marty Hires, a spokesman, said the company is investigating.
Williams said news of the problem was first posted on a blog. The company then learned about the offensive combinations when a reporter called to ask about it.
The blog Firedoglake, run by Jane Hamsher in Oregon, posted news of the combination yesterday afternoon under the heading "So Wrong."
The incident illustrated how quickly a firestorm can build on the Internet. Two minutes after the post appeared on Hamsher's blog, it was up on the Crooks and Liars site. Within hours, more than 100 comments were posted to that site, questioning such things as Wal-Mart's agenda and the technicalities of mapping.
Wal-Mart has been in a public relations battle over the past year. In May, the company apologized for a newspaper advertisement in Arizona that equated a proposed state zoning ordinance with Nazi book-burning. Then came the Robert Greenwald documentary "The High Cost of Low Price," which criticized Wal-Mart's treatment of employees.
The company fought back by hiring former political operatives to polish its image and has joined in founding a group called "Working Families for Wal-Mart" that helps promote positive stories. Yesterday, Wal-Mart repeatedly apologized for the offensive material on its Web site.
"We are deeply sorry that this happened," it said in a written statement.
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