On Sunday night, Walmart aired a commercial promoting watermelon during the BET Awards, one of the most popular TV programs among African-American households.
The commercial features a grower who says "summertime is watermelon time." The farmer extols the virtues of tending his crop and also of his relationship with Walmart, which offers a money-back guarantee that its watermelon will be fresh.
With the Fourth of July right around the corner, consumption of the luscious red fruit is reaching its peak. To promote what customers want makes perfect marketing sense, but some viewers on social media were looking for common sense to prevail.
"Did Walmart really just run a Watermelon ad during the #BETAwards? That seems avoidable," wrote @katieperkins on Twitter.
A supposed love of eating watermelon is a well-worn black stereotype that dates to slavery and remains stubbornly prevalent in American society. Even President Obama is not immune to its racist iconography.
To be certain, other stereotypes were also on display during the commercial breaks, including an ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken. But KFC has but one product to promote while Walmart has a warehouse full of options.
D. Watkins, a Baltimore-based professor who has written about the culture of poverty and race, says it's unfathomable that Walmart would run the ad intentionally to offend, noting the retailer's popularity in the black community for low prices and employment opportunities.
"I can’t think that those Walmart executives were trying to play up those stereotypes," he said on Monday after watching the commercial online. "I think everybody loves watermelon, blacks, whites, Asians...everyone."
Watkins pointed out that there were no blacks portrayed in the commercial and that the farmer appeared proud of his heritage and his farm.
"It seemed like they were honestly trying to sell their product," Watkins said. "But if they really wanted to speak to the black community, they would advertise something about good-paying jobs."
BET referred questions on the issue to its ad sales team, which did not return emails on Monday. A call Monday evening to Walmart was not immediately returned.