OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Advertisers, agencies and the media rarely find anything to agree about, but they are allied, albeit uneasily, against the bluenoses from Bentonville.

That's Bentonville as in Arkansas, the home of Wal-Mart Stores, the behemoth American mass-merchandiser, with sales last year of $246.5 billion, good enough to land the discount retailer atop the Fortune magazine list of the 500 biggest companies. Part of the reason Wal-Mart has managed to vanquish its formerly formidable competition in the cut-throat US retail market is an ability to present itself to shoppers as emblematic of so-called family values, as eager to raise moral standards as it is to lower prices.

So Wal-Mart executives have zealously pursued a cultural agenda along with an economic one, shaping what's on the shelves of the stores to reflect the perceived taste levels of their fairly traditional shoppers concentrated in the Midwestern, Southern and Western states that voted for George W Bush. Not only does Wal-Mart pare its wares to focus on mainstream fare, such as country music and potboiler novels, it refuses to sell CDs and DVDs with content it deems salacious.

Those movie studios and record labels that prize profits over principles are encouraged to provide versions bowdlerised to meet Wal-Mart standards.

Now, Wal-Mart has taken steps that are extreme even for Puritanical censors (or censorious Puritans). First, in early May, the chain stopped selling three American versions of the British lads' magazines FHM, Maxim and Stuff, citing complaints from its customers and associates, the latter being Wal-Martspeak for employees, over their racy articles and photographs.

Then, a month later, Wal-Mart struck at the distaff side of the magazine business, punishing four women's titles - Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Marie Claire and Redbook - because of consumer complaints about having to endure sexy come-on coverlines as they wait in line at checkout counters. This time, though, the offenders aren't being excommunicated. Instead, they are being sent to the stockades - U-shaped dense plastic contraptions that partially obscure the covers on the left and right sides (where the spicy headlines lurk) while leaving the name and middle sections visible.

Outraged reactions came quickly. Wal-Mart management "needs to grow up", declared the trade publication Advertising Age. The Magazine Publishers of America, the industry trade association, proclaimed that because "freedom of choice is fundamental to the American way of life," readers of popular magazines "should not be deprived of their ability to purchase them".

The Delaney Report, a newsletter, called for "a publishing industry boycott of" Wal-Mart to protest what it decried as "a slap in the face to the rights of freedom of the press on which the United States was founded".

Caught in the middle of the muddle are marketers that take ad pages in the affected magazines and the agencies that plan and buy those schedules.

The purchases were predicated on some circulation derived from single-copy sales at Wal-Mart stores, the largest sellers of magazines in America that are visited each week by an estimated 100 million people - more than a third of the total US population. How can those sales be made when magazines are half-hidden, or not there at all?

It's time to strike back against censorship. Maybe Felix Dennis can threaten to introduce a feature in Maxim called: "Undressed for Success: The Hottest Babes Who Work for Wal-Mart."