March 28th, 2001
King's 'Dream' Becomes Commercial
By Paul Farhi
Civil Rights Leader's Heirs Approved Use Of Image by Alcatel
The grainy black-and-white image is familiar. The man and his stirring words are the same. But then something strange happens to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
As the camera pans from King’s image on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd that heard his exhortations on Aug. 28, 1963, is gone. No throngs cheer his call for racial justice, not a soul hears him speak of an America where his children will be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Instead, over a shot of King speaking to an empty Mall, a voiceover informs viewers: “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.
King is the new star of a TV and print campaign for Alcatel Americas, the domestic arm of a French company that builds voice and data networks. Alcatel hired George Lucas’s Industrial Light + Magic shop to give King’s revered “Dream” speech a “Forrest Gump"-like spin. Print ads, which appear in The Washington Post and other newspapers, also feature tricked-up photos of the speech. The King family approved the use of King’s image and speech in the campaign.
According to a company statement, the King ad showcases “Alcatel’s stature as the architect of end-to-end global communications networks.”
But critics say it merely showcases bad taste.
“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,” says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. “It’s certainly true that the business of America seems to be business and business prevails. It’s a sad situation, but that’s America.”
Adds King biographer Richard Lischer, “There’s a part of us that says some things shouldn’t be for sale. Racial reconciliation and justice shouldn’t be on the market.”
Alcatel spokesman Brad Burns dismisses such criticism, saying that “with any impactful campaign, you’ll always get a handful of negatives.” He says the company has received “overwhelmingly positive feedback” since the ads began last week, including from some organizations composed of African Americans.
“It’s not like we’re selling a product,” Burns says. “We’re simply associating our brand with it. This isn’t Fred Astaire with a vacuum cleaner.”
King and other black leaders organized the March on Washington in 1963 to argue for expanded civil rights and greater economic opportunity. His speech before some 200,000 supporters was the highlight. The event is generally credited with propelling the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public facilities and discrimination in education and employment. That year, King won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Alcatel actually is the second high-tech company to use King’s image in an advertisement the last two years, although the first in memory to incorporate King’s famous speech in connection with a company.
In 1999, Apple Computer ran magazine ads and billboards featuring King as part of its “Think Different” campaign that also included likenesses of Picasso, Gandhi, Einstein and Amelia Earhart.
In both cases, the commercial appropriation of King was approved by King’s heirs through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Robert Vickers, a representative of the center, which is headed by King’s son Dexter Scott King, acknowledged that Alcatel had licensed footage of the speech. Neither he nor Burns would say how much the company paid.
The King family has received periodic criticism for its efforts to commercialize King’s legacy, most notably in 1997 when it struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Time Warner to produce recordings of his speeches and books based on his writings. Supporters of the family, however, said at the time that the agreement would help support the King Center and would bring King’s message to a wider audience.
The family has been especially protective of the “I Have a Dream” speech, going to court to keep the speech copyrighted and to protect licensing fees. In 1993, it withdrew a lawsuit against USA Today after the paper paid $1,700 plus unspecified legal costs for reprinting the entire text without permission.
“I remember that when I called the commercial agency that handles [the King estate], I was told, ‘If you think you’re going to quote from that speech, it’s going to cost you,’ “ says Lischer, the author of “The Preacher King” and a professor at Duke University. “I always thought ‘I Have a Dream’ is the 20th-century parallel to the Gettysburg Address. It’s one of the few speeches we bother to teach our children anymore. I was shocked by that.”
Another King biographer, Michael Eric Dyson of DePaul University, has been harshly critical of efforts to exploit King. But he confessed to being “torn” about the Alcatel ad. “Yes, an icon is being commercialized, but he’s also being repackaged for a new generation around the notion of technology,” says Dyson, whose book is titled “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.”
“It does bring that whole civil rights generation into the generation of technology. It says that the Internet is something for African American people, too. . . . At least they’re not selling a coffeemaker or an ice cream machine or a switchblade.”