Alcatel's dream a nightmare

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On Aug. 28, 1963, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most moving speeches in U.S. history. His keynote address during the March on Washington reached its high point when he declared, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

I've been hearing those words a lot lately, thanks to a TV commercial for Alcatel, a Paris-based telecommunications vendor, that seems to be running during every nationally televised sporting event.

The spot features footage from the speech and does a bit of visual ad-libbing. Using cheesy special effects, the ad shifts its vantage point to show the civil rights leader speaking to an empty Washington Mall.

Alcatel then delivers its own attempt at dramatic rhetoric: "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 networks." Then, presto! The quarter of a million people who heard King's address are suddenly where they're supposed to be.

Talk about a monumental disconnect. Did Alcatel and its agency, Arnold Worldwide, not realize that this spot would probably offend many more viewers than it would inspire to buy the company's networking equipment.

This isn't borrowed interest. This is blatant commercial appropriation—albeit with the King estate's blessing—of a pivotal moment in modern U.S. history.

While Washington and Lincoln have long been fair game for commercial exploitation—we in Chicago are bombarded with laughable late-night commercials featuring a fellow with a beard and stovepipe hat hawking insurance—the passage of a century or two can soften the crassness. In the case of King's speech, we're talking about an event that many in Alcatel's intended audience are old enough to remember.

If the folks at Alcatel think this is the way to connect, all I can say is: Dream on.

John Obrecht is managing editor of BtoB and can be reached at

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