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King: Commercializing or Communicating?

Martin Luther King Jr. is center stage again, this time in a commercial for a communications network company.

Alcatel Americas paid the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change an undisclosed sum for the rights to use King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a TV and print advertising campaign.

In the TV ad, King stands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering his famous lines about racial equality. But the crowd has been digitally erased. He stands alone before the reflecting pool, speaking to no one.

Then the voiceover begins: “Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect. And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel, a leader in communication networks.”

“Yes, it’s the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., posthumous pitchman,” wrote Paul Farhi in a March 28 Washington Post article.

Alcatel has defended the ad campaign, both in the Post and on NBC’s March 29 Today show.

“With any impactful campaign, you’ll always get a handful of negatives,” Brad Burns, Alcatel’s spokesperson, told the Post. Burns added that Alcatel has received “overwhelmingly positive feedback” about the campaign.

But Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, contested the appropriateness of the ad.

“I guess this is just proof that in America even the most sacred icons of the civil rights movement are not immune to exploitation and commercialization,” Bond told the Post. “It’s certainly true that the business of America seems to be business and business prevails.”

Bond’s position was shared by many people who spoke out in the Post’s online forum about Alcatel’s ad.

“Show me the money!” responded one participant, speculating about the King Center’s motives for giving Alcatel permission to use King’s likeness.

“This is commercialism at its worst,” wrote another, “especially since his family is approving it.”

“In this day and age, it’s all about money,” wrote yet another. “It truly is a shame that nothing is sacred any longer.”

A few respondents reacted positively to the ad.

One person commented on the adwriting, it is not the “commercialization of a great man and his ideas,” but rather a tribute to the power of King’s communicative ability.

“Actually, I thought the ad was very powerful,” wrote another. This particular respondent indicated the ad had educated him about King’s speech and the March on Washington.

The ad ends with unmanipulated footage of the event, revealing the thousands that actually attended.

“If this was an enlightening experience for me,” the respondent wrote, “it probably was for others as well. Isn’t that what Dr. King would have wanted?”

The ad campaign brings several issues into focus: the King Center’s legal relationship to King’s life and work; the employment of historical events for commercial purposes; the “falsification” of historical footage; and shifting responses to the civil rights movement.

“Is it really so different than using a guy dressed up as Washington or Lincoln to advertise for a President’s Day sale?” asked one participant in the Post’s online forum. No. In those broad parameters, it’s not so different. Critics of the ad campaign have generally overlooked this important point.

But it differs significantly in that the King ad falsifies a historical document (i.e. footage of the March on Washington). Such tampering is nothing new–see “Forrest Gump,” for example.

Publicity surrounding the ad forces this observation–almost 40 years later, mainstream voices are rushing to defend the March on Washington.

Lest anyone think America has become too progressive, however, consider the posting of one forum participant: “Personally I celebrate Martin Luther King day on April 4”–the day King was shot in Memphis.

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.