Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words shouldn't be used to sell a corporate brand, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated April 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Martin Luther King: UPI/Corbis Bettman

A new TV ad sells out MLK’s ”Dream”

You’re watching TV, and Martin Luther King comes on. He’s at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, giving his famous 1963 ”I Have A Dream” speech, but something’s wrong. It’s too quiet. There’s no crowd murmur; you can’t hear that woman egging him on. Then the camera swings around, and you see that the Mall is surreally empty. Where the hell are all the people? What’s going on here?

Then comes the soothing corporate voiceover: ”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 equipment.” Cut to the Mall, thronged with the tens of thousands of folks who were, in fact, present at King’s speech.

So, duh, it’s an ad. And, just as duh, plenty of people are offended. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who marched with King, and historian David Garrow, who won a 1997 Pultizer for his King biography, have bitterly criticized the spot for turning the civil rights leader into a posthumous pitchman for the digital age. Outraged editorials have been written. A web poll received 4,500 visits in 18 hours, with 35 percent of respondents finding Alcatel’s use of King’s image ”inappropriate” or ”offensive.”

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. First, it’s just a commercial. Second, the King estate signed off on the French telecommunications company’s use of the footage and was presumably paid handsomely; son Dexter King may have gotten previous flack in the press for perceived exploitation of his father’s legacy, but, approve of it or not, he and his family can do as they like. Third (and this is admittedly a stretch), the ad brings King into the here and now for a generation to whom he’s just a name on a holiday.

Okay, done playing devil’s advocate; now let’s parse the situation as it compares to similar crimes against culture. Is the Alcatel commercial (created by the Boston based ad firm Arnold Worldwide with digital effects created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic) any worse than the current Cingular spot that uses audio from the same Martin Luther King speech as one of a dozen soundclips, including Shakepeare, Winston Churchill, Kermit the Frog, and Homer Simpson?

Yeah, it’s worse, if only because the Cingular ad is presenting ”I have a dream” as only one of many moments that carry undeniable pop punch — it’s acknowledging that we all recognize the words as a singular 20th century sound bite. The Alcatel ad, by contrast, simply rides on the back of the speech, hoping that its historical impact will reflect a warm, fuzzy glow onto the corporate brand.

Is the ad as bad as the recent VW commercial that used the late British cult folkie Nick Drake’s ”Pink Moon” (another Arnold ad, by the way) to sell cars? Worse again: Even if that song’s actual lyrics describe a vague apocalypse that would swallow the baby yuppies depicted in the ad whole, Drake’s work is treated as a soft sell accompaniment rather than a hard sell exploitation. Besides, most people have never heard of the Drake; Volkswagen can be actually given credit for igniting a groundswell of interest in the singer.

The more reasonable corollary here is the infamous Nike spot that used the Beatles’ ”Revolution” to sell sneakers in the late ’80s. Now THAT was exploitation. The entire purpose of the spot was to link our memories of the song — and the people and times it evokes — to shoes. ”Rubber Soul” notwithstanding, I don’t think that’s what John Lennon had in mind.

Similarly, the Alcatel / King ad exists solely to transfer the deep and complex emotional response we have over the ”dream” speech to a corporate entity. That’s obnoxious enough already, but when you digitally alter the existing record — yes, even for an ad; ESPECIALLY for an ad — you’re asking for a smackdown. It’s not that some things are too sacred to be touched. It’s that some things are too profound to be made shallow.

The people at Alcatel, bless their tiny little hearts, don’t get it. A company spokesman recently defended the spot to the Washington Post thusly: ”It’s not like we’re selling a product. We’re simply associating our brand with it.” Oh, bollocks: Either Alcatel thinks we’re too dumb to understand that brand and product are identical in modern corporate America, or the people there are more seriously deluded than originally thought. The spokesman WAS right, however, when he, referring to the creepy 1997 ad that resurrected a deceased movie star, said, ”This isn’t Fred Astaire with a vacuum cleaner.” It’s much worse.