February 24, 2005

Martin Luther King Says, "Read This Post!"

Today's Musical Selection: "Mercy Mercy Me" by Marvin Gaye

Hello, everybody! Today I share with you an item I noticed in this morning's Washington Post. It seems that while I wasn't looking, some sharp-eyed companies have been turning Black History Month into a platform on which to sell commercial goods. (By the way, in case you hadn't noticed, this is Black History Month... only four shopping days left!)

The article leads off with a couple examples that are charming in their staggering ineptness:

The green and yellow flier from the Kmart in Aspen Hill proclaimed, "Celebrate Black History" and then advertised "3 for $1 Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix" and "3 for $10 Tone 6-Bar Soap."

Pretty bad, huh? But that's amateur hour compared to this shining example of commercial synergy:

The makers of Metamucil and Pepto-Bismol ran a full-page ad in this month's Ebony magazine declaring, "Black History Month is a legacy of pride and achievement leading to a healthier tomorrow." The ad continues, "It's the same ideals you turn to when it comes to your GI Health -- a history of digestive solutions."

Despite the obvious and meaningful connections between a celebration of African-American heritage and laxative, it seems that some people are a little cranky about this. Probably these are the same fuddy-duddies who got all up in arms when Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech was used to sell cellular phones.

Here's one prominent fuddy-duddy who's ticked off about the whole thing:

Activist Jesse L. Jackson said that some of the ads are produced by the same companies that "denied access" to blacks and that they trivialize the historic struggle.

"What pains me is that these ads are feel-good sessions about a black general who did this or someone who sang a song or a political figure who worked on this, and 'Aren't there some wonderful black people?' " he said. "Of course that is true, but they don't deal with issues like . . . why black people work as hard and make less, why black people are stressed out and don't live as long."

To Reverend Jackson and others, I say: Welcome to the club.

I've been on this particular kick for years. Around major holidays and landmarks, this sort of thing tends to crop up. (You may remember my anti-Christmas-commercialism rant from December.) Sometimes it's amusing, like the sign down the street from my office that encourages people to stop in for a Valentine's Day oil change (only $14.14... how romantic!). Sometimes it's less amusing.

I remember the first time my sensibilities were offended in this regard. I was about 12, and I was riding in the car with my parents when I heard a radio commercial for a local car dealership. It was around President's Day, and this commercial featured "George Washington" and "Thomas Jefferson" extolling the virtues of this dealership. I recall that "Washington" said, "I cannot tell a lie... these are the best deals you'll find on the East Coast!", and "Jefferson" said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a great deal on a new Honda."

A loud booing noise filled the car, and eventually my parents noticed it was coming from me. "That stinks!" I said. "Using the Founding Fathers to sell cars... ugh. Is nothing sacred?"

My parents gave me that this-must-be-the-slow-class look and said, "Get used to it. They'll use anything to sell anything in America."

Unmoved, I proceeded to write a scalding editorial about it in my middle-school newspaper, which did not win me a Pulitzer.

My parents' point of view got an airing in this article:

"Eventually any piece of history or American culture gets trivialized by advertisers," said Barbara Lippert, the advertising critic for Adweek magazine. "They just use any opportunity as a platform to sell something. . . . Everything becomes about buying and selling."

And Ms. Lippert (and my parents) are right. As I've learned over the years, there is nothing in America that can't be exploited in the right marketing situation. And it has been ever thus. (The article highlights an interesting historical fact that I did not know: When the Statue of Liberty came to America, a castor-oil company offered to pay for its construction in exchange for being able to drape an advertising banner across the pedestal.)

Given America's tendency to turn everything into one big advertisement, it seems unnecessary for African Americans to be perturbed over the trivialization of Black History Month. It's simply their turn in the barrel.

But maybe this particular outrage can spawn a larger movement. Perhaps we're ready to stand up as a culture and reclaim our history from the wood-chipper of marketing. Maybe the people upset about the cheapening of Black History Month can join forces with the Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season people and the President's Day cranks like me, and together we can say enough is enough.

I doubt it, though. If there's a true religion in this country, it's capitalism. That's the altar at which we all worship, the motivating force around which our lives are structured. Even God is selling hot dogs in the Hebrew National commercials. There is nothing that the marketplace can't manipulate to serve its own ends. Nothing. (The minute someone figures out how to use 9/11 as a commercial platform, it will be appropriated too. Some might say that President Bush has already done this.)

I'd welcome your thoughts on this. What do you think about the limitless marketability of everything in America? Does it bother you as it bothers me? Or are you glad that nothing's sacred/ And can anything be done to stem the tide? (Assuming anyone other than purists like me still cares.)

On that note, I take my leave. See you next time!

Posted by Fred at February 24, 2005 08:57 PM

Somehow the President's Day ad doesn't bother me as much as the Black History-related ones. It might be knee-jerk PCness, or a more complicated form thereof.

I sort of feel like Washington and Jefferson are a very shared history of all Americans, and so it's less objectionable for anyone to use them than it is for a (presumably) non-African American-owned corporation to exploit Black History Month. After all, we get spoonfed Washington and Jefferson from nursery school, but how much do the people making these "Black History" ads actually know about black history, or contemporary black issues? Somehow with Black History Month, it feels more like theft and tokenism than a cheap invocation of our common history.

Then I thought about how I'd feel if someone used JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you" to sell something (other than public service such as joining the military/ Peace Corps/ etc.), and decided that there's more than the racial component to it, because that idea still bothered me more than the President's Day advert. Maybe I feel like Washington's "I cannot tell a lie" is such a trite (and inaccurate) bit of history that it's not really degrading it to use it for an advertisement, whereas something that I feel to be inspirational like Kennedy's speech is more sacred.

Posted by: PG at February 25, 2005 01:17 AM

One outcome from my six month stay in England was that, in America, money is KING. Money rules everything. It is always about the money. Money decides everything.

"Back to School Liquor sale" is kind of funny. I like Thanksgiving because it hasn't really been commercialized. Besides the food there isn't much more we are expected to buy buy buy.

One of my favorite quotes is:

"By Grapthar's hammer . . . what a savings."

Posted by: Tripp at February 25, 2005 03:27 PM

Along with the general thread of bottom-line ideology, I think you'd concur with much of the sentiment in this.

Posted by: PG at February 28, 2005 05:16 PM
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