Ad featuring King speech is worthy of praise, not blame

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For those whose skivvies are all in a wad over the use of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in a commercial for a French telecom company, three little words:

Presidents Day Sale.

If the question is, "Is nothing sacred?," the answer is, no, of course not. Grim experience has taught us that nothing at all is sacred, or beyond commercialism's grasping reach.

Nothing's new about historical sacrilege, either. Is there anything worse than the way we celebrate Independence Day, or, more perversely still, Memorial Day, honoring the memory of our fallen servicemen by heading for the beach, or watching car races on TV, or checking out the Chrysler dealer's sell-a-thon? A thousand doughboys lay gassed in a stinking trench ... think minivan! Free hotdogs for the kids!

Moreover, not to put too fine a point on it: Christmas.

So let us not get too pious about the latest historical icon to be posthumously pressed into commercial service.

Of course, the commercial defiling of Lincoln and Washington's legacies is not really what permits Alcatel to invoke Martin Luther King. Just because the years have reduced the republic's saviors to meaningless caricatures, trivializing their lives and deeds, doesn't mean we should invite the same treatment for more contemporary icons.

On the other hand, our greatest leaders and watershed historical events not only substantially define us as a nation, they belong to us all. They are as much a part of our culture as of our history. Advertising is permitted, even encouraged-within the bounds of taste and propriety-to employ those cultural references. If every no-account Hollywood gimmick is deemed resonant enough to play off of in a TV commercial, why not something that really cuts to the core of the American experience?

The question, then, is what constitutes bad taste or indecency. Well, for starters, there's the matter of relevance. If you're going to cash in on history to peddle a product, there had better be a legitimate connection between the two. George Washington for the First National Bank? Sure. George Washington for Beano? No. George Washington for Poli-Grip? Hmmm ... maybe.

That gets to the second measure: proportion. Even if the connection is clear, advertising must take care to not cheapen history with the mundane. Those Oval Office photos of JFK during the Cuban missile crisis are the very definition of tension, all right, but not to sell Excedrin.

And, naturally, the ad can't ever communicate a message antithetical to the life and work of the historical figure. Ghandi for the "Peacekeeper" missile system? No. No. No.

This brings us to Alcatel and Martin Luther King. If you frame the question as, what could some multinational fiber-optic stringer have to say that possibly measures up to the defining moment of this country's civil-rights struggle, the answer, obviously, is "nothing." But that's not how to frame the question. Alcatel's question is, essentially: if the defining moment of the civil-rights struggle fell on Washington's Mall, and nobody had been there to witness it, would it have made a noise?

And that's an intriguing inquiry.

The spot opens with a close-up of Dr. King, speaking his famous words:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live up to the meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."'

Then, via (still not ready-for-prime time) digital animation, the viewpoint recedes and turns 180 degrees to reveal the cheering throngs. Except the 600,000 people are missing. We see only a deserted Mall.

"Before you can inspire," the voice-over says, "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 the kicker: the real, historical crowd shot, documenting what happened because the connection was indeed made.

Far from desecrating King's message, this commercial honors it-and, of course, further perpetuates it. Ultimately, the ad isn't about Internet architecture; it's about reaching an audience. Dr. King did. Alcatel does. The King family has no objection. Where, please, is the harm?

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