It wasn't more than a week ago that fellow Fool Stephen Simpson pondered whether Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) deserved to be hated. I'll admit that I never had a strong opinion on the subject till this morning. That's when I learned that a company PR manager authorized an ad comparing those standing in the way of the retailer's expansion in suburban Arizona to -- wait for it -- the oppressive censorship of the Nazi regime.
Yes, you read that right.
The ad in question appeared last month in the Arizona Daily Sun, a paper covering the Flagstaff area. CNN reports that the ad showed a photo of a Nazi book-burning alongside text arguing that there's no difference between government-led censorship and government-led opposition to corporate expansion. Think that's laughable? Well, it gets worse. Wal-Mart doesn't deny that it authorized the ad, but it also claims it didn't know the historical context of the photo it was using. Riiiiiight.
This story is so sad on so many levels. First, there's the lack of judgment. Even if Wal-Mart hadn't a clue it was effectively calling its opponents Nazis, someone should have known that it would be stupid to cry censorship when it has been accused of the same. Wal-Mart makes a habit of not selling items it considers distasteful, and while that's not censorship, to some it has a similar smell.
Then there's the "we didn't know" defense. Maybe Wal-Mart had no choice but to say this. But the buck has to stop somewhere, and it doesn't fly here. It's just not credible. A better statement would have been "We should have known better," because somebody in charge should have.
In light of this episode, it's worth asking again whether Wal-Mart should be hated. I don't think so. And I won't sit in judgment of the PR manager, either. Did he make a dumb mistake? You bet. But I've made dozens of dumb mistakes, too. So have we all. Yet shareholders have every right to join the rising din over this incident.
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Fool contributor Tim Beyers doesn't shop at Wal-Mart. It's nothing personal; it's just never occurred to him. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.