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Jewish World Review April 2, 2001 / 9 Nissan, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Milking MLK -- IN one of his final speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. said he wanted to be remembered simply as a "drum major for justice." Recent TV viewers may remember him in quite a different role: corporate pitchman.

Perhaps you have seen the recent TV commercial that features the slain civil rights leader delivering his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

Except, something doesn't look quite right. As the camera orbits around King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and he throws his head back in his full oratorical glory, there are no people. King preaches to an empty landscape, except for a trio of birds soaring across the distant sky.

"Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect," an announcer's voice says. "And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel, a leader in communications networks."

Or maybe you have heard King's voice in another recent commercial for the cell phone service Cingular Wireless.

At the end of a montage of voices that includes Kermit the Frog and William Shakespeare, you hear King deliver a line from his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Then, after a brief dramatic pause, you hear the doofus voice of Fox TV's animated star Homer Simpson exclaim, "Doh!"

As I sat peacefully watching TV at home, I was jerked alert by both of these commercials.

"The King family has done it again," I moaned.

In recent years the King family has sharply restricted journalists, researchers and academicians in their use of King's words and likenesses, while selling the same to commercial interests for use in ads.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded by his widow Coretta Scott King and chaired by their second son Dexter Scott King, closely guards the copyrights, licensing fees and other rights over the slain civil rights leader's speeches and writings.

In 1997 they struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Time Warner to produce recordings and books of his speeches and writings.

Earlier they settled a lawsuit against USA Today out of court after the newspaper reprinted the entire text of the "I Have a Dream" speech without permission.

All of this protectiveness serves a good cause, the King family assures us. Proceeds go to help support the King Center, they say. Besides, they insist, the family can help King's message reach a larger audience.

How wide? Well, in 1999 they approved the use of magazine ads and billboards featuring King as part of Apple Computer's "Think Different" campaign, which also included likenesses of Picasso, Gandhi, Einstein and Amelia Earhart.

Alcatel, a French company that builds voice and data networks, hired George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic wizards to recreate King's best-known moment.

And, why not? All icons are vulnerable to commercialization. Look at the way Presidents Day has become synonymous with post-Christmas clearance sales. Look at the way Christmas and Easter have become occasions for feverish shopping and buying.

Many of my fellow baby boomers went ballistic when Nike leased the rights to John Lennon's "Revolution" from Michael Jackson and used the Beatles song for athletic shoe commercials in the late 1980s. Hardly a peep of protest has been heard more recently as the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and other '60s rockers are used to sell cars and other products.

It is not that hard to imagine King's most famous sound bites similarly morphed into future ad campaigns. How about:

"'I have a dream' of a brand new convertible…!"?

"'All should be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content' of their cold medicine!"?

"'Justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like' the all new cola sensation!"?

"'Free at last…' with store discount ant factory rebate…"?

Anything is possible when King is sold on a new auction block - and by no less than his own kinfolk.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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