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Two words: Bad Taste
March 28, 2001 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Two words: Bad Taste The Washington Post today is running an article on Alcatels new pitchman, Martin Luther King, Jr! Yes! MLK joins the likes of John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock as undead spokespeople.
posted by cornbread (47 comments total)

 
Yes, these ads are evil.

"It's not like we're selling a product," Burns says. "We're simply associating our brand with it."

Oh, then it's all okay.
posted by davidfg at 8:54 AM on March 28, 2001


In case you hadn't seen it, here it is, over on AdCritic.
posted by crunchland at 9:02 AM on March 28, 2001


I lost my capacity for that kind of disgust when Mercedes-Benz bought Janis's song.
posted by harmful at 9:06 AM on March 28, 2001


ya gotta admit, that is some pretty cool technology.
posted by jonny rook at 9:06 AM on March 28, 2001


So does this mean we'll be seeing JFK Jr. pitching Piper Saratoga airplanes?

(or his dad promoting Texas tourism?)
posted by MrBaliHai at 9:25 AM on March 28, 2001


"Hello, my name is Jesus Christ, and when I'm not administering love and forgiveness to the universe, I'm drinking Diet Coke."
posted by Doug at 9:27 AM on March 28, 2001


Cingular also has MLK in their commercials, because you're "Free At Last, Free At Last".... for in-state phone calls. Yuck.

MLK's heirs need to be less money grubbing.
posted by owillis at 9:42 AM on March 28, 2001


owillis has the truth of it. This would not have occurred if the family had not gone along with it.

Shame on the company for wanting to do this ad, it is an obscenity.

Shame on the family for putting a price tag on the image and memory of a man who stood for an entire movement, not for the sales dept at Alcatel, or for their personal bank account.
posted by a3matrix at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2001


Well, I have to say that it's the King family's decision. I wish they hadn't, for Alcatel -- I don't think there's any obvious association of the company with the purpose of the speech other than just feel-good. Worst of all is that I just feel the 3-D pan uses substandard graphics and turns the moment into a video game. Kinda like screenshots.

I'm really disgusted by the Cingular ad, though. To completely trivialize the phrase "Free at last" ... from being a human being without a ball and chain ... to having a phone without a cord? Boggle.
posted by dhartung at 9:51 AM on March 28, 2001


Part of me responds to the ILM-style tech stuff like this as "that's really cool!" I've always been a fan of visual effects.

The other part of me is reminded of 1984 - where the history is rewritten as things change - the history as known simply gets rewritten. This kind of visual hijacking is really hacking reality and history at some kind of primal level.

We really are living in the future. As a (hopefully) future parent, how do I tell my kids what's a real image and what's false? You have to be *really* sophisticated to interpret the visual world. Movies are hacked in this way. TV sports, via "virtual billboards" is hacked this way. I think one of the US TV networks put up a virtual billboard for their newscast of new years.

So how the heck do we train ourselves to distinguish "truth" and "reality" when these things are so fuzzy in our visual culture?
posted by artlung at 9:54 AM on March 28, 2001


In America, everything is for sale, has a price. Just ask the former governor of New Jersey
posted by Postroad at 10:00 AM on March 28, 2001


HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Good one postroad
posted by a3matrix at 10:23 AM on March 28, 2001


owillis: Well, the man *did* want his children judged by the content of their character. So I think a child selling our its parent's deepest dreams, wishes and greatest achievements for some cash pretty much says it all.
posted by bison at 11:24 AM on March 28, 2001


Geez. I've brought up Cingular's tastelessness twice before, and nobody seemed to care then.
posted by aaron at 11:29 AM on March 28, 2001


I got fed up with this kind of thing when I was informed that Mahatma Gandhi used the Macintosh. (But evidently the Mac doesn't work very well, because Amelia Earhart still got lost and crashed while she was using hers.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:32 AM on March 28, 2001


Would Cingular have need MLK's estate's permission for that "free at last" quote? Isn't something like that in the public domain?

Not that I'm condoning their use of it. It has sickened me since I first heard it. There are so many other quotes that they could have used which would have gotten their message across and probably been more effective. It's just so gross.
posted by amanda at 11:37 AM on March 28, 2001


> So how the heck do we train ourselves to distinguish
> "truth" and "reality" when these things are so fuzzy in
> our visual culture?

For some large number of folks, I imagine, such fuzziness will mean uncritically accepting everything with a shrug and a "Whatever." For a (slightly) more critical crowd it means disbelieving anything they didn't see live with their own eyes (e.g. the moon landings were faked, the Holocaust was made up by propagandists.)

For people in daily contact with this particular geek of long standing, such as my little girl, it means being taught that the web (and indeed all electronic media) are highly suspect and must be checked and cross-checked from other sources. Reading takes priority over viewing images, and print on paper outranks e-text. It's a lot easier to rewrite a web page than it is to, say, rewrite all the World War II-era newspapers in all the world's microfilm collections. Use e-media as your early warning system but not as the meat and potatoes you feed your mind on a daily basis.
posted by jfuller at 11:40 AM on March 28, 2001


If they had modified the images to make it seem like King was endorsing Alcatel, then it would have been disgraceful.

As it is, they were making an analogy using something that almost every one of the viewers was familiar with. I see no dishonor in that. That they did it in such a convincing (?) way doesn't add any dishonor.

The same people who made Forrest Gump apparently made this commercial. Were the scenes where they inserted Tom Hanks disgraceful? Did the producers of that movie do a disservice to John F. Kennedy when they made him shake Tom Hanks' hand? What's the difference?

And as for being afraid of Orwellian rewrites of history -- well, you better not read any of the books by Harry Turtledove.
posted by crunchland at 11:46 AM on March 28, 2001


I got fed up with this kind of thing when I was informed that Mahatma Gandhi used the Macintosh. (But evidently the Mac doesn't work very well, because Amelia Earhart still got lost and crashed while she was using hers.)

I'll bite the troll: those ads were a decent homage to great people and, frankly, in their simplicity better than just about any other series of computer ads that've ever run. There was no hard-core pitch, no behavior alteration, no words put in mouths, no hucksterism, no uncivilized respect for the dead and no dancing vacuum cleaners.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:49 AM on March 28, 2001


I think Cingular is just trying to get name recognition. What they sell isn't all that easy to explain in a thirty-second spot. I think that explains their Super Bowl spot, which showed a handicapped artist at work. There was no real tie-in with their product. They just wanted something memorable associated with their name.

It's an interesting question as to how effective the "I Have a Dream" speech will be as a marketing ploy. The speech has affected me deeply whenever I've heard it, so I'm likely to be annoyed at its commercial appropriation. Other people still don't approve of MLK, so they won't be swayed by the ads. So just who is the target audience?
posted by anapestic at 11:51 AM on March 28, 2001


anapestic, God... did I go off on that particular commercial with the handicapped guy. It is unfathomable to me that advertising execs would choose to play this to a bunch of drunk men with insatiable appetites for violence and touchdowns. I mean, my God... it's sad, but everyone at my Super Bowl party either fell out of their chairs laughing, or were like, "Riiiight..."
posted by fusinski at 11:59 AM on March 28, 2001


I've heard at least three songs that use samples from MLK's "I have a dream" speech as a way to add emotional impact. In fact I'd say it's a cheap, easy, and lazy way to add emotional impact. I'm not sure what Cingular did is really any worse.
posted by kindall at 12:02 PM on March 28, 2001


I think quoting a speach to add emotion to a song or peice of art is a little different than using it to sell Coco Krispies, or whatever the hell this company is selling, Kindall.
posted by Doug at 12:12 PM on March 28, 2001


I'd have to agree with kindall there: for a marketing team looking to create an "impactful" campaign (that's the awful word the Alcatel flack used), it's just plain easy to graft on a meme with legs. Your meme could be Fred Astaire dancing, or it could be the Civil Rights Movement.

This trend makes me suspect that, to most Americans, moments like MLK's speech on the mall are memes without true historical resonance. They are "events," ocurring in a vacuum, "big things" that happened "in the 60s." Maybe people know about them, but are they necessarily a bigger deal than, say, Survivor?

History bores us, but celebrity talks to us.
posted by Bootcut at 12:27 PM on March 28, 2001


artlung: As a (hopefully) future parent, how do I tell my kids what's a real image and what's false?

media literacy: the use of use critical thinking skills in accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating media.

the center for media literacy and the media literacy clearinghouse are good atrting points.

rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 12:31 PM on March 28, 2001


God that ad is revolting. Also revolting, is the company that created it, and the family for agreeing to it. Shame on the King family for selling out the memory of MLK.

Perhaps it's a new trend in advertising, create something so awful there's an outcry, and you know the campaign got tremendous exposure, much more than your typical boring dotcom advert.

I'd link to a Bill Hicks rant in mp3, about the scum that inhabits the world of advertising, but I can't find it right now...
posted by mathowie at 12:37 PM on March 28, 2001


I think that the public is buying the whole communications technology=freedom bit. I haven't decided, as I assume most of us haven't. Correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by mblandi at 12:46 PM on March 28, 2001


crunchland, the Post article merely says the commercial's technology is "Gump-like" in the way it tinkered with historical truth. And I agree that Gump was mostly harmless -- if Hanks was shaking Kennedy's hand while holding a "vintage" Coke bottle in his other hand, that would be product placement, and would run afoul of conspicuous taste. The difference lies solely in the capitalization of a corporate entity on a cultural icon. Especially considering Alcatel and MLK shouldn't have anything to do with one another, this is a creative license that I feel ad execs just shouldn't take. It's like advertising in schools, IMHO. Some arenas for expression should be preserved, and only interfered with at the behest of those whose mandate it is to regulate those arenas. In other words, shame on the King heirs for their involvement in this. It taints King's legacy for us all by attaching needless meanings to his work.

Meanwhile, does anyone else object to the not-so-subtle insinuation that King was preaching to nobody? In Gump, they added a befuddled doofus to historic shots; in this advertisement, they eliminated the hundreds of thousands of people who witnessed the event firsthand because they supported King's revolution. This isn't tinkering, like Gump did on celluloid; it's full-blown tearing out pages of history, in favor of bigotry's acceptance. And for what? A company that probably won't survive another year.
posted by legibility at 1:07 PM on March 28, 2001


Legibility: Did you actually watch the ad? If so, I don't see how you can support your comment on the "not-so-subtle insinuation that King was preaching to nobody"-- the last few seconds clearly shows the original crowd.

Besides, why would a company trying to sell their brand of communication and "connection" want to put forth an image of disconnect?

And, no, I'm not necessarily defending or supporting the ads-- just felt that particular comment warranted a rebuttal.
posted by tsitzlar at 1:17 PM on March 28, 2001


I have seen them, a number of times. And every time it airs, and I see no audience but a few fluttering seagulls, I find cause to shake my head in disbelief. Therefore, I probably wasn't paying attention to the last half of the commercial! Thanks for calling me on that.

Still: the idea that Alcatel somehow affirmed King's connection to people through their heaven-sent technology, rather than through King's abilities as an orator and the greater need for civil rights reform, is a wee bit disconcerting, isn't it? No one likes a boast. [Insert Al Gore link here.]
posted by legibility at 1:33 PM on March 28, 2001


Somewhere, Bill Hicks is nodding sadly at all this:

By the way, if anyone here is in Marketing or Advertising... kill youself.

Just planting seeds here. No joke, just kill yourself, you have no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan's little helpers, kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now.

Seriously. I know the marketers are thinking, "There's going to be a joke coming."

No joke. Suck a tailpipe, hang yourself, borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy, do something, rid the world of your evil fuckin' presence.

Just planting seeds. Might bear fruit, I don't know.

What really bugs me though is that every one here that's in marketing is thinking the same thing... "Oh, cool, Bill's going for that anti-marketing dollar, that's a huge market."

[starts crying] Quit it, Quit it, don't turn everything into a dollar sign, pleeease...

"Ooooh, the plea for sanity dollar, huuuge market! Look at our research!"

posted by chicobangs at 3:08 PM on March 28, 2001


Well, you must not have seen Forrest Gump, or you'd know that Dr. Pepper soda plays a big part of that mythical meeting of Tom Hanks and JFK.

I wonder if any of you remember the Hoover commercials of a few years ago? They show vintage Fred Astaire dancing, as he did with other inanimate objects, with brand new vacuum cleaners. Same as this scenario, the heirs of Fred gave permission.

I just wonder if some people are more outraged about the MLK footage... for whatever reason.
posted by crunchland at 3:10 PM on March 28, 2001


The Astaire-vacuum footage is just as wrong, but the MLK stuff is worse in my mind. Fred Astaire danced originally for pretty much pure entertainment purposes. There's no major social message there that gets distorted.

Not saying the distortion of the Astaire thing is unimportant or any less evil, but Dr. King's speech is one of the more important social turning points in American history. That Alcatel is dry-humping the memory of this significant moment for its own stupid gain (and to have this 'campaign' tossed aside after what, a year?) makes a mockery of his memory and the causes he stood there for in the first place.

Word, bison: It is very hard to not judge all the players in this thing by the content of their character.
posted by chicobangs at 3:21 PM on March 28, 2001


the astaire thing was disappointing, but it *was* just entertainment.

dr martin luther king jr represents the highest hope of this country. that speech articulates a vision so profound....

it makes me sick to see it (or one line of it) used in any commercial.

rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 3:31 PM on March 28, 2001


How long before Bill Hicks' folks sell that speach to an ad agency?
posted by ceiriog at 3:57 PM on March 28, 2001


I think quoting a speach to add emotion to a song or peice of art is a little different than using it to sell Coco Krispies, or whatever the hell this company is selling, Kindall.

Well, "quoting" (sampling, actually) a speech in a song is done to increase the emotional resonance, which is done to make the record sell better. I mean, I don't know how you could justify allowing the recording-industrial complex to use this sample to enrich themselves, while condemning the communication-industrial complex for doing more or less the same thing.

King's heirs probably got much more money from Cingular than they ever did from bands who sampled his speeches, which is probably one point in Cingular's favor.
posted by kindall at 4:20 PM on March 28, 2001


Reminds me of that commercial where Jesus hocks wine coolers.
posted by muppetboy at 4:33 PM on March 28, 2001


Would Cingular have need MLK's estate's permission for that "free at last" quote? Isn't something like that in the public domain

No, the speech is actually copyrighted. And the King family is so money grubbing that they even sued CBS back in the late '90s for running a snippet of the speech in a news program without paying them royalties.

bison has it right: The King family's character is dictated by $$$.
posted by darren at 4:50 PM on March 28, 2001


"And the King family is so money grubbing that they even sued CBS back in the late '90s for running a snippet of the speech in a news program without paying them royalties."

I find this far more offensive than I find the Cingular ad.
posted by CrayDrygu at 5:22 PM on March 28, 2001


For what it's worth, the money went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation and not the family directly (though some have jobs with the foundation). Ostensibly the money will help support the efforts of the foundation.

When I say I wish they hadn't done it, I mean because of the effect it has in diluting the power of that moment.

As for being able to earn money from the work of their husband or father, the family breadwinner who has been dead these last 30 years, well, I think they have that right.

As for the CBS lawsuit, their lawyer said in 1999: "Let's talk about who's being greedy. We give the speech to schools for free. We give the speech to non-profits and churches for free. CBS -- they don't deny it -- charges $1,000 a minute for a public school to have access to I Have a Dream." When CBS settled in 2000, it was apparently by a contribution to the King Center. It is also worth noting that the documentary in question used sixty-two percent of the speech. Text of lawsuit. Also note that again, as with trademarks, a copyright is a mark of intellectual property that can be lost if it is not defended.
posted by dhartung at 7:55 PM on March 28, 2001


a copyright is a mark of intellectual property that can be lost if it is not defended

Actually, this is not true. Current international copyright law has no provision for expiration of copyright due to lack of publication, lack of protection, or anything of the sort. Trademarks are the only type of intellectual property that can expire if not vigorously protected -- patents and copyrights do not.

Copyright in works registered after 1978 lasts for the author's life plus seventy years, period (assuming the author is an individual). Things got a little obfuscated with the recent revisions to the law extending the term, Here is a summary. King's speech was given in 1963 which would mean, assuming it was published that year with the proper copyright notice and renewed when required, that it is good until 2030.
posted by kindall at 9:23 PM on March 28, 2001


Just for the record, I really feel sorry for the last person to update that copyright page I linked to above, whose name is apparently Lolly Gasaway.
posted by kindall at 9:24 PM on March 28, 2001


For what it's worth, the money went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation and not the family directly (though some have jobs with the foundation). Ostensibly the money will help support the efforts of the foundation.

The efforts of the foundation, according to what I can see, is to make sure Coretta (listed as founder), Marty (listed as CEO, chairman and president) and the rest of the family are well-fed and well-dressed. Any other accomplishments seem to be secondary.
posted by darren at 7:27 AM on March 29, 2001


Whoops, my bad. It seems King's other son, Dexter, is the CEO/Chairman/President/Whatever. I don't know under what title Martin III (Marty) is getting paid.
posted by darren at 7:32 AM on March 29, 2001


My problem with this is that Martin Luther King Day ought to become merged with Palm Sunday...hands out, palms extended. Schools are to honor King when his own family, no matter what the money goes to, uses him as a show biz prop for tacky ads? MLK's Dream has turned into a nightmare.
posted by Postroad at 8:14 AM on March 29, 2001


Not only is this an insult to the memory of Dr. King, it is an insult to all of the people who are still living who dedicated themselves to making his vision into a reality.

The family should be ashamed. Anyone who doesn't immediately change the channel and stop watching any program sponsored by Alcatel should be ashamed as well. So long as we watch, they will continue along their path.
posted by Dreama at 9:28 AM on March 29, 2001


Summary from my POV:

Shame on the King family for allowing this great speech to be employed to sell a product.

Shame on Alcatel for producing such a (as previously mentioned) lame video-game-cinema-scene-quality effect.

As for Cingular, I don't think their use of "free at last" was a metaphor for wireless calling, but rather the ultimate example of great moments in communication/human expression they had summed up with previous clips in the same commercial. I think the intent was to honor that speech, not to abuse it. Still, I don't think the King family should have allowed it (if they even could prevent it: I don't know how fair use applies here). Like Rebecca, I get a bad taste in my mouth when great events and people are abused for the sake of selling stuff.

Postroad: I wonder if Palm, Inc. has talked to the Catholic Church at all about sponsoring Palm Sunday. Seems like great potential for brand synergy to me. What do you think?
posted by daveadams at 10:18 AM on March 29, 2001


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