US: Wal-Mart Starts Image Boosting Ads

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, launched a national advertising campaign on Thursday to burnish an image tarnished by allegations that it discriminates in hiring and promotions and drives smaller rivals out of business.

The company is running a full-page advertisement in more than a hundred newspapers, touting the number of jobs it plans to create this year, its employee benefit packages, and the diversity of its work force. It also has started a Web site to support its campaign.

The campaign is not a response to any specific charge against Wal-Mart, said Jay Allen, senior vice president of corporate affairs. But the company has become more of a target for critics due to its growth in recent years, he added.

"It has just become evident to us that it is time for us to be more aggressive in defining ourselves rather than letting others do that," Allen said in an interview.

The ad, which ran in papers such as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, says the company plans to create 100,000 U.S. jobs in 2005 and that 74 percent of its hourly employees work full-time. It also touts the fact that the average wage for its full-time hourly employees is nearly twice the federal minimum wage.

"For too long, others have had free rein to say things about our company that just aren't true," Chief Executive Lee Scott said in a statement. "We've decided it's time to draw our own line in the sand."

The national campaign comes after Wal-Mart ran an advertising campaign to overcome resistance to its presence in California, where it has faced particularly strong protests.

The company spent $500,000 to help defeat a California ballot measure requiring larger employers to pay for health care coverage for workers. But California lawmakers have said they will hold hearings to investigate allegations that Wal-Mart burdens the state with an unfair portion of the retailer's employee health-care costs.

A company spokesman declined to say how much Wal-Mart is spending on the new advertising campaign, which is designed to boost the morale of employees who face criticism for working at the giant retailer.

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart also faces a lawsuit, filed in 2001, accusing it of discriminating against women employees and retaliating against those who complained. In September, a job applicant sued the retailer in federal court, alleging that the company discriminates against black employees seeking work as truck drivers.

Wal-Mart has about 3,660 stores in the United States and more than 1,500 abroad. It has annual sales of $256 billion -- about the same size as the gross domestic product of Austria.
Shares of Wal-Mart, a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, fell 20 cents to $53.88 in early trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

AMP Section Name:Retail & Mega-Stores