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 Kings
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
Yes, its the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,
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
Lucass Industrial Light + Magic shop to give Kings
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 Kings image and
speech in the campaign.
According to a company statement, the King ad showcases Alcatels
stature as the architect of end-to-end global communications
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. Its certainly
true that the business of America seems to be business and
business prevails. Its a sad situation, but thats
Adds King biographer Richard Lischer, Theres
a part of us that says some things shouldnt be for sale.
Racial reconciliation and justice shouldnt be on the
Alcatel spokesman, Alcatel Alcatel spokesman Brad Burns dismisses
such criticism, saying that with any impactful campaign,
youll 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.
Its not like were selling
a product, Burns says. Were simply associating
our brand with it. This isnt Fred Astaire with a vacuum
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 Kings image in an advertisement the last two
years, although the first in memory to incorporate Kings
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 Kings 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 Kings 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 Kings 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 Kings 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 youre going to quote from that speech, its
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. Its one of the few
speeches we bother to teach our children anymore. I was shocked
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 hes
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
theyre not selling a coffeemaker or an ice cream machine
or a switchblade.
Paul Farhi, The Washington Post. March 28, 2001.
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.