Dirty Apes! (Wal-Mart, Dr. King, and the Planet of the Apes)

Jason Smith points to an amusing tale of computers gone bad. He went to order “Planet Of The Apes: The Complete TV Series” on DVD and was presented with a rather interesting set of ” similar items”:

-Introducing Dorothy Dandridge Martin Luther King: I Have A Dream / Assassination Of MLK  Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson What's Love Got To Do With It

One wonders what keywords they had in common.

Update: Mike Krempasky emails the following from Wal-Mart:


  • We are heartsick that this happened and are currently doing everything possible to correct the problem. The offensive combinations that have been identified will be removed from the site by 5:30 CT today. However, with thousands of movie items available, there is an almost endless number of possible combinations. Because of that, we will be shutting down our entire movie cross-selling system until the problem is resolved.
  • We are deeply sorry that this happened.
  • Our system, like those of most other on-line buying sites, refers buyers interested in a particular movie to other movies through a technical process known as “mapping.”
  • Walmart.com’s item mapping process does not work correctly and at this point is mapping seemingly random combinations of titles. We were horrified to discover that some hurtful and offensive combinations are being mapped together.
  • To further illustrate the bizarre nature of this technical issue, the site is also mapping movies such as Home Alone and Power Puff Girls to African American literature.

Quite bizarre. As the tone of my original post makes clear, I always presumed it was a technical glitch of some sort.

Update (1/6): Wal-Mart Halts Movie Suggestions on Web

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is shutting down the system that creates movie recommendations on its shopping Web site after it linked a “Planet of the Apes” DVD to films about famous black Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr. Wal-Mart said Thursday it had removed what it called the “offensive combinations” from a walmart.com page advertising a boxed DVD set, “Planet of the Apes: The Complete TV Series.” Under a “similar items” section, the DVD set’s page linked shoppers to four films about the lives of King, actress Dorothy Dandridge, boxer Jack Johnson and singer Tina Turner. Wal-Mart later altered the page to link with television show DVDs.

The world’s largest retailer said the software that generates links for shoppers from one movie to others of similar interest would be shut down. All cross references would be removed as soon as technically possible until the system can be fixed, Wal-Mart said. Bill Wertz, a spokesman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based company, said it wasn’t yet clear how or when the technical problem arose. “We’re still looking into it,” he said.

Wal-Mart moved swiftly after a link to the page for “Planet of the Apes” began circulating on the Internet.

As silly as the suggestion that Wal-Mart somehow did this on purpose is, their quick response to this is savvy business. Some percentage of people will get offended at virtually anything.

John Aravosis more-or-less agrees:

There’s lots to criticize Wal-Mart over, but the Planet of the Apes isn’t one of them. Companies can be evil, but they’re not stupid, or not THIS stupid. Wal-Mart has been accused recently of discriminating against people with disabilities, but they weren’t dumb enough to put it on their Web site.

All I’m saying is that just because Wal-Mart sometimes sucks doesn’t mean they suck in this instance. I just don’t believe any major American corporation is going to link the Planet of the Apes and black people, it’s just not gonna happen. Something obviously went awry here, but I just refuse to buy that racism is the cause. Sorry.

Anyone with the slightest clue about computer algorithms–or business, for that matter–should understand that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ob1 says:

    I went to that link and was shown DVD’s of the TV sitcom FRIENDS for similar items. So what does that prove? Nothing, of course.

    Many Similar Items modules base their results on what was also bought by someone buying the original item not on keywords. So perhaps someone bought Planet of the Apes and also Friends thus when I went to it…Friends stuff was displayed.

    To assume that this is a racial issue is wrong with the evidence presented. You simply do not know if the function uses keywords or if it uses other items purchased. Without that knowledge you should not jump to the conclusion you did.

  2. Anderson says:

    Very smart of them to get on it so fast. There’s a reason Wal-Mart is # 1.

    Speaking of offense easily taken, I recall drafting a federal court opinion on an employment discrimination case. One of the (black) plaintiff’s beefs was that a manual describing some computer stuff (I’m tech-illiterate, sorry) used “master” and “slave” terminology for different servers or somesuch.

    Reaching a bit, no?

    (She lost. Actually she seemed to be fired for doing a better job than the people around her, so that they ganged up on her & got her pushed out; but that is not yet a violation of federal law.)