News & Politics

5 Other Times Companies 'Appropriated' Martin Luther King Jr. to Make Money

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shakes his fist during a speech in Selma, Ala., Feb. 12, 1965. King was engaged in a battle with Sheriff Jim Clark over voting rights and voter registration in Selma. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

On Sunday night, Fiat Chrysler came under fire after releasing a Dodge Ram commercial featuring a Martin Luther King Jr. speech during Super Bowl LII. King’s estate approved the use of the speech, but various commentators denounced it as out of keeping with King’s stance against commercialization. If so, this is far from the first time.

https://youtu.be/SlbY1tGARUA

“The blatant commodification of black culture, black struggle and black pain illustrates perfectly how America is perfectly willing to exploit blackness but perfectly incapable of honoring it,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted.

Comedian George Wallace made a dark joke about the commercial. “I wish MLK was still alive so we could buy matching Dodge Rams and go fishing together and haul shit around and whatnot,” he tweeted.

“The worst commercials are those that use icons like Martin Luther King Jr to sell things like a Dodge Ram truck,” Matt Viser, the Boston Globe‘s Washington bureau chief, tweeted.

The most creative response overlaid a different MLK quote mocking commercials on top of the same Dodge Ram ad.

Not everyone opposed the ad, however. One black woman who identified herself as anti-Trump defended the ad, since it referenced Black History Month at the Super Bowl. “Why do white people think all black people have to think alike? I’m not mad at the ad. Ok? No other advertiser even tried to incorporate ,” she tweeted.

https://twitter.com/SNLDREAMS/status/960326336047931392

“Loved this ad! The emotional appeal with MLK’s speech overlaying scenes of people working hard to serve in their roles in society was perfect. The emotional appeal did overshadow the fact that it was a commercial though,” a user named Megan Conroy tweeted.

https://twitter.com/MeganConroy8/status/960314542684327936

“It was an inspirational commercial using an inspirational speech from an inspirational man. If nobody ever uses King’s material, that would be racist? But, the people that do use it, are still wrong? It doesn’t work both ways. People whine about EVERYTHING,” a multi-racial conservative Christian tweeted.

Perhaps the fact that King attacked the commercialization of American culture in the very speech Ram used for the ad does make this particular commercial rather egregious. Even so, this would not be the first time Martin Luther King Jr. has been used to sell products after his death — and it likely won’t be the last.

Without further ado, here are 5 other times MLK’s voice or image has been monetized long after his death.

1. 1997: Time Warner.

In 1997, the King family struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Time Warner to produce recordings of the Civil Rights icon’s speeches, and books based on his writings. The family’s supporters said this would help spread King’s message and support the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Ga.

Even so, this first move drew criticism.

2. 1997: Apple.

In 1997, Apple released a famous ad with the mantra “Think Different.” The ad used footage of King along with other major 20th-century figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Pablo Picasso.

3. 2001: Alcatel Americas.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCkPBO-sywg

In 2001, the French Internet company Alcatel Americas released an ad featuring King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The ad showed King speaking to an empty Mall in Washington, D.C., suggesting that even so powerful a message as King’s could only prove effective when connected with an audience.

4. 2006: General Motors.

In a 2006 ad, General Motors used Martin Luther King Jr. — along with Rosa Parks and even images from September 11, 2001 — to advertise the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado. The ad received attention and criticism after playing during football games.

Chevrolet also advertised the unveiling of King’s memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2011.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWWJilYH-po

5. 2010: Mercedes-Benz.

In 2010, Mercedes-Benz released an ad — which seems to have been removed from YouTube — featuring King in a montage along with Muhammad Ali, Michelle Kwan, and Roger Federer raising their arms in triumph. “It’s the universal gesture, a way of telling the world you ‘did it’ without saying a word,” the narrator of this commercial said. The ad closed with the rising “gull-wing” doors of the Mercedes SLS AMG coupe.

In each of these cases, King’s estate gave the go-ahead, and the same held true for the Dodge Ram commercial on Sunday.

Both Bernice King (MLK’s daughter) and the King Center distanced themselves from the ad. “Neither nor is the entity that approves the use of ’s words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight’s  commercial,” the King Center tweeted.

When asked if the King children allowed the Civil Rights icon’s voice to be used in the Ram commercial, Bernice King tweeted a firm “No.”

Fiat Chrysler defended the ad after criticism, however.

“It is 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave such a tremendous speech about the value of service. Ram was honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually,” the company stated. “We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way.”

Perhaps the commercial was wrong-headed, but it wasn’t illegal — and it was far from the first time King has been used to sell products, especially automobiles. Perhaps people should chill out about it — after all, the use of King’s image merely proves that he is a revered public figure beloved by Americans.