Ad Report Card: Is the MLK Ad Defensible?

A surprising number of the e-mail responses to last Monday’s item on the Britney Spears Pepsi ad didn’t deal with that commercial at all. Instead they directed outrage and disgust at an Alcatel spot that features doctored archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr. (A much higher number of the responses directed outrage and disgust at me for picking on little Britney and offered several colorful theories on what sort of person would do such a thing—but this was no surprise.) After a story Tuesday in the Washington Post on the Alcatel-MLK spot, interest snowballed, and that ad’s critics say the commercial is simply indefensible. Is it? Before we go any further, you might want to check out the ad if you haven’t seen it already. Go here or here to do so.

The Ad: We open on the familiar image of King delivering a key passage from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Except that something is different: Normally he is surrounded by throngs of people. Here he is all alone—the crowds have been removed through some technical gimmickry. A narrator murmurs: “Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect.” At this point the camera angle has shifted around behind King, still speaking movingly to no one all. Narrator: “And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel. Alcatel, a leader in communication networks.” A title card identifies Alcatel as “architects of the Internet world.” We cut back to the King footage, which is now back to normal, the crowds huge and cheering.

The Case Against It: To get the ostensible point of the Ad Report Card out of the way, this is a failure as a piece of advertising. The link between the King stunt and Alcatel is extremely strained—just another variation on the do-something-startling-and-then-mention-your-product school of advertising—and while “controversy” can sometimes help a brand, it’s hard to see how it does so here. Besides, the vast majority of complainers don’t seem to remember the brand name, they’re just livid.

And why is that, exactly? Because, critics say, the King legacy ought not be twisted to commercial purposes. “Offensive,” said one “Moneybox” e-mailer. “This line should never have been crossed,” agrees a reader post in “The Fray.” “Go back to France,” one person advises Alcatel (the parent company is French) in an forum. “Shame on the King family,” adds one of the many negative responses on MetaFilter.

The (Half-Hearted) Defense: So, is there anything to be said in this ad’s defense? Maybe. I’m not particularly convinced by the strained argument by apologists for the spot (that is, the people who made it) that it somehow introduces a new generation to King’s ideas. On the other hand, there’s one subtheme in the criticism that I’m not sure about, either. It’s summarized by Cynthia Tucker, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, arguing that “too many white Americans stubbornly cling to the view that King was a black hero,” as opposed to a hero for all Americans, and that ads like this will make it easier for such people to ignore King as “another superficial figure in popular culture.”

But couldn’t you read the evidence the opposite way? One friend of Moneybox (and a fellow native Texan) makes an interesting argument, recalling that his parents, “like most Southerners in the ‘60s, thought King was an awful communist radical.” How astonishing, then, that a mainstream corporation would hitch itself to his image—precisely because he is now a hero to practically all Americans. It seems at least plausible to argue that the ad has the inadvertent effect of underscoring just how wrong-headed—how marginal—is the view that King is a fleeting figure held in high regard by only one slice of the country. One of the reasons the spot doesn’t work as advertising is that pretty much no one buys into the notion of King as a de facto product pitchman. What the ad presupposes, and ends up driving home, is that King is practically an American saint, and that his beliefs—which were indeed seen as dangerous and controversial not so many years ago, and not just in the South—were correct in ways that are central to the American idea.

All this does not really amount to a defense of the ad itself. But in the end, the juxtaposition of King and some grasping company sullies the company’s reputation, not King’s. This is bad news for Alcatel, but maybe, however inadvertently, it is not such bad news for King or his ideas.