Advertising Educational Foundation
Abstract

Building on the sample of advertisements featured in the accompanying Advertising & Society Quarterly article "His Light Still Shines: Corporate Advertisers and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday," this digital collection provides a cross-section of MLK Daythemed or inspired advertisements from 1981 to the present found largely in Black magazines. Collectively, these adverts and advertising features showcase the multivalent ways in which American companies—from multinational corporations to local businesses and commercial vendors—have attempted to walk the tightrope between commemorating and commercializing King, and between acknowledging and appropriating his activism and political legacy.

Keywords

advertising, African American, American politics, archive, Black history, civil rights, commemoration, corporate social responsibility (CSR), cultural memory, digital collection, ethnicity, Martin Luther King Jr., MLK, national holiday, race

[Editors' Note: See related article by E. James West.]

On April 4, 1968, African American Baptist minister and leading civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by a White assailant as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Just days later, as race riots catalyzed by King's death continued to rage in dozens of cities across the nation, Democratic Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to make the fallen civil rights leader's birthday a national holiday. Underpinned by the support of labor unions, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and the Congressional Black Caucus, the movement to establish a national holiday for King slowly gathered momentum. Throughout the 1970s, a range of bills introduced by Conyers and Senator Edward Brooke attracted a growing number of cosponsors in both the House and Senate. In 1979, the year in which King would have celebrated his fiftieth birthday, these efforts were given a boost when President Jimmy Carter publicly pledged his support. Conyers' bill would first come to a vote in the House of Representatives later that same year, although it fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for its passage.1

Despite this setback, public and political momentum to establish a national holiday for King continued to grow. In January 1981, more than 100,000 supporters braved freezing weather in Washington, DC to attend a rally in support of the King holiday on the National Mall, headed by Coretta Scott King, Black entertainer Stevie Wonder, DC Mayor Marion Berry, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Congressional debates rumbled on throughout Ronald Reagan's first term in office, before the President finally signed the King Holiday Bill into law in November 1983.2 The holiday was formally observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. State-level resistance to the holiday would persevere into the 1990s, with the opposition of figures such as Arizona governor Evan Mecham drawing a lurid response from rap group Public Enemy in their 1991 hit "By the Time I Get to Arizona." In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to formally recognize the King holiday as a paid holiday for all state employees, although some Southern states continue to combine commemorations of King's birthday with other observances; most jarringly, the birthday of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

As the King holiday movement approached critical mass during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the King Center and other allies looked to the support of American corporations to help their efforts reach fruition. Despite King's well-documented ambivalence towards consumer capitalism (something that had evolved into a more open hostility by the end of his life), American businesses seized upon King's memory as a means of demonstrating their support for racial equality. As a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), support for the King holiday from businesses such as Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, and Coca-Cola quickly became an important part of broader efforts to strengthen ties with Black consumers. By the early 1980s, companies such as Greyhound had begun to print commemorative adverts in Black-oriented publications such as Ebony, Black Enterprise, and The Crisis, which expressed support for the passage of the King holiday and celebrated the enduring power of King's "dream." By the second half of the decade, such campaigns had spread beyond Black-oriented publications to include commercials on network television and other mainstream media outlets. In some instances, permissions were granted by the King estate, pointing toward the growing efforts of the King family to both police the portrayal of the activist's legacy and exert their commercial rights over his intellectual property.3

Through the visual and textual content and framing of such commemorative advertisements, American businesses added to already complex and often fractious political and ideological debates around the "true meaning" of King's activism, and, by extension, the function and legacy of the African American Civil Rights Movement. For King's supporters on the left, the holiday represented a call to action and an opportunity to reinforce his reputation as a "warrior for peace on the domestic and global battlefields;" a figure whom Black philosopher Cornel West describes as "a staunch anti-colonial and anti-imperial thinker and … a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies."4 For more moderate commentators, the holiday was a moment for Americans of all races and backgrounds to come together and celebrate King's appeals to "Brotherhood" and "unity" in inclusive and apolitical terms. For conservative commentators, the holiday provided an opportunity to recast King as an advocate of consumer capitalism and to reframe the language of "colorblindness" to justify the Reagan administration's dismantling of affirmative action programs and other race-based public initiatives.5

By the mid-1990s, companies appeared to have become more comfortable with capitalizing on the commemoration of MLK Day in order to sell their goods or services. This included consumer products in King's likeness, such as artwork or decorative porcelain, or personal checks that "pay tribute to his principles and beliefs." Over time, commemorative advertising has become less concentrated in Black-oriented publications and has filtered into general market media markets. At the same time, companies have increasingly chosen to fold specific acknowledgements of King and the King holiday into broader appeals to African American cultural heritage and the celebration of Black History, in line with the commemoration of Black History Month in February. By 1996, New York Times contributor Stuart Elliott suggested that American consumers could be excused for thinking the Madison Avenue calendar included "an annual winter festival of [B]lack advertising" that began in January and continued until the beginning of March.6

In more recent years, attitudes appear to have remained mixed on the question of how, and to what extent, American businesses have engaged with the observation of MLK Day. Some commentators have applauded the restraint of corporate advertisers, suggesting that unlike federal holidays such as Memorial Day and Columbus Day which have been "corrupted by commercialism," the national observation of King's birthday remains "mostly resistant to marketability" more than three decades after its inception.7 Other activists and market researchers have criticized the apparent "hijacking" of the King holiday by companies, retailers, party promoters, and other commercial interests. High profile criticisms of recent King-inspired advertising campaigns has refocused public attention on this issue; most notably a Dodge commercial which aired during Super Bowl LII in 2018, and which used an excerpt from King's "Drum Major Instinct" sermon, but ignored other sections of the same speech in which King openly criticized advertisers as "those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion." More broadly, the impact of the Black Lives Matter Movement had refocused the public eye on corporate appeals to racial justice and their utilization of King and other Black historical figures.

Building on the sample of advertisements featured in the accompanying article, "His Light Still Shines," this digital collection provides a cross-section of MLK Day-themed or inspired advertisements from 1981 to the present. Collectively, these adverts and advertising features showcase the multivalent ways in which American companies—from multinational corporations to local businesses and commercial vendors—have attempted to walk the tightrope between commemorating and commercializing King, and between acknowledging and appropriating his activism and political legacy.

40 Years of Advertising the MLK Holiday

Fig 1. Greyhound (1981). In celebrating King as a "Leader, Preacher, [and] Friend of all," this feature from Greyhound makes the case for the King holiday several years before it was finally signed into law. Three pencil sketches of King, one holding a young girl. Joe Black, VP of Greyhound has an endorsement at the bottom.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 1.

Greyhound (1981). In celebrating King as a "Leader, Preacher, [and] Friend of all," this feature from Greyhound makes the case for the King holiday several years before it was finally signed into law.8

Fig 2. Greyhound (1985). This advert celebrates the passage of the King Holiday Bill and highlights some of the key individuals involved in the victory, including Coretta Scott King, Congressman John Conyers, and entertainer Stevie Wonder. Sketch of King's head floats above a tiny landscape with names written at angles like an array of sunbeams from a cloud. Headline reads "At Last. At Last" and the ad is signed off by Joe Black.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 2.

Greyhound (1985). This advert celebrates the passage of the King Holiday Bill and highlights some of the key individuals involved in the victory, including Coretta Scott King, Congressman John Conyers, and entertainer Stevie Wonder.9

Fig 3. Coors (1986). A simplistic advert which calls for a "moment of silence" to celebrate King's life and accomplishments. White text and logo at the bottom of a gradient black page. Ad reads "A moment of silence in celebration of the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 15, 1986, Coors."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 3.

Coors (1986). A simplistic advert which calls for a "moment of silence" to celebrate King's life and accomplishments.10

Fig 4. IBM (1987). In describing King as a man "who didn't see the world in black and white," this advert leaned into the rhetoric of conservative colorblindness. White text and logo on a black page. Headline reads "Dedicated to a man who didn't see the world in black and white."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 4.

IBM (1987). In describing King as a man "who didn't see the world in black and white," this advert leaned into the rhetoric of conservative colorblindness.11

Fig 5. Kentucky Fried Chicken (1987). The message of the advert—"it's left to us"—is deliberately vague, allowing KFC to acknowledge the King holiday without taking a clear political position. A closeup of a pensive even worried King with his knuckles to his mouth.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 5.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (1987). The message of the advert—"it's left to us"—is deliberately vague, allowing KFC to acknowledge the King holiday without taking a clear political position.12

Fig 6. Burger King (1988). The evocative imagery in this advert gestures towards King's place within a Black radical tradition. Color ad with chain links breaking apart which are backlit for a halo effect. Headline reads: "He had the courage to break with tradition."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 6.

Burger King (1988). The evocative imagery in this advert gestures towards King's place within a Black radical tradition.13

Sears (1988). With its strong multicultural message, this advert was one of the first major King-themed television campaigns.
Video 1.

Sears (1988). With its strong multicultural message, this advert was one of the first major King-themed television campaigns.14

Click to view video

Burger King (1988). Literally weaving together ideas about racial identity, patriotism, and social progress, this advert pushes back against conservative critiques of King as "un-American."
Video 2.

Burger King (1988). Literally weaving together ideas about racial identity, patriotism, and social progress, this advert pushes back against conservative critiques of King as "un-American."15

Click to view video

Fig 7. Pepsi-Cola (1989). Another campaign which avoids making any kind of political statement. Color photo of King at pulpit. Text reads "The Pepsi-Cola family joins you and your family in commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 7.

Pepsi-Cola (1989). Another campaign which avoids making any kind of political statement.16

Fig 8. Coca-Cola (1990). Taking a slightly different approach, this advert provides an intimate look into King's role as a father. King in casual clothes lifts toddler daughter Bernice in a backyard photo. Headline reads "Let's do it for our children. Let's show them what a great world this can be when we join hands and live his dream of love and harmony."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 8.

Coca-Cola (1990). Taking a slightly different approach, this advert provides an intimate look into King's role as a father.17

Fig 9. American Express (1991). Reconciling King's "dream" to the pursuit of consumer capitalism, this advert positions American Express as a company which embodies his legacy. A young Black girl daydreams under the headline "Dream Power."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 9.

American Express (1991). Reconciling King's "dream" to the pursuit of consumer capitalism, this advert positions American Express as a company which embodies his legacy.18

Fig 10. BP (1991). This feature demonstrates how companies attempted to align themselves with the King Center and play up their appeals to social responsibility. Small photo of a pensive King. Text reads "He never dreamed of an award like this. MLK never set out to win awards for social responsibility. He simply saw a wrong, and tried to right it. BP is extremely proud to be the only company to receive the 1990 Social Responsibility award from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. In fact, this award honors him more than us. For when we invest in education, housing, and neighborhood redevelopment, we are simply following his example."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 10.

BP (1991). This feature demonstrates how companies attempted to align themselves with the King Center and play up their appeals to social responsibility.19

Fig 11. Philip Morris (1991). Another advert which gestures towards more radical components of King's philosophy; in this case, his diasporic understanding of the struggle for racial equality. A dark upper atmosphere sets off King's quote above a world map, and the Philip Morris logo. Quote reads "Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today … the cry is always the same … 'We want to be free'."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 11.

Philip Morris (1991). Another advert which gestures towards more radical components of King's philosophy; in this case, his diasporic understanding of the struggle for racial equality.20

Fig 12. McDonald's (1992). This advert leans heavily into conservative messaging about absent Black fathers and the "urban crisis." Two young Black boys sit on cement stairs. Text reads "Unless we keep living the dream … they'll live a nightmare. Each and every one of us must do our part. And McDonald's joins the community in dedicating ourselves to keeping Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream alive. As we celebrate his birthday, we recognize the fact that the man who leaves the world a better place … never leaves."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 12.

McDonald's (1992). This advert leans heavily into conservative messaging about absent Black fathers and the "urban crisis."21

Fig 13. Delta (1993). By the 1990s, companies appeared more willing to use wordplay to link their products or services to King's memory. Medium-sized headshot style photo. Text reads "Men of vision don't need wings to soar. His words stirred a nation. His accomplishments showed the world that when giants dream, it's never small."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 13.

Delta (1993). By the 1990s, companies appeared more willing to use wordplay to link their products or services to King's memory.22

McDonald's (1993). By 1993 variations of this McDonald's campaign had been running for more than 5 years, suggesting that it was well received by the general public.
Video 3.

McDonald's (1993). By 1993 variations of this McDonald's campaign had been running for more than 5 years, suggesting that it was well received by the general public.23

Click to view video

Fig 14. Flagstar (1994). Another campaign which makes connections to the King Center in Atlanta. Pencil sketch of 5 children with hands on hearts. Text reads "Liberty and justice for all was meant to be a practice … not just theory. The King Center for Non-Violent Social Change practices what it preaches keeping the dream alive."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 14.

Flagstar (1994). Another campaign which makes connections to the King Center in Atlanta.24

Fig 15. American Airlines (1995). The text of this feature echoes that an earlier Delta Airlines advert and provides another example of businesses using wordplay to link their services to the King holiday. Stylized typeface evokes a plane wing over clouds and blue sky. Text reads "Today, we salute a man who taught everyone to soar a little higher. In 1963, in the middle of horrific racial turmoil and segregation, King rose above it and spoke of a dream. About a day when people would not be judged by their race, but rather by their character. At American Airlines, we share the vision of Dr. King. And we're pleased to commemorate January 16 as a day to celebrate his life, his achievements and his dreams."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 15.

American Airlines (1995). The text of this feature echoes that an earlier Delta Airlines advert and provides another example of businesses using wordplay to link their services to the King holiday.25

Fig 16. Du Pont (1995). One of the more visually striking adverts in this collection, this feature gestures towards King's notions of "brotherhood" and interracial unity. Color collage of racially and culturally diverse people's heads and faces, with a translucent line drawing of King's head overlaid. Quote reads "Our destinies are tied together; none of us can make it alone."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 16.

Du Pont (1995). One of the more visually striking adverts in this collection, this feature gestures towards King's notions of "brotherhood" and interracial unity.26

Fig 17. Lladro (1995). By the mid-1990s, adverts had begun to appear for King-themed memorabilia or consumer products. Images of a porcelain figure of an orating King with an American flag background and the words: "I have a dream;" Freedom;" "Children;" "Justice;"
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 17.

Lladro (1995). By the mid-1990s, adverts had begun to appear for King-themed memorabilia or consumer products.27

Fig 18. DeLuxe (1996). The speculative contention that these checks paid tribute to King's "principles and beliefs" was moderated by Deluxe's contention that a portion of proceeds would be redistributed through the King Center.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 18.

DeLuxe (1996). The speculative contention that these checks paid tribute to King's "principles and beliefs" was moderated by Deluxe's contention that a portion of proceeds would be redistributed through the King Center.28

Fig 19. McDonald's (2001). Echoing the language of earlier adverts by IBM, this feature returned to the theme of "colorblind" messaging. Small photo of King and very large headline reading, "This ad is black and white. His message was not."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 19.

McDonald's (2001). Echoing the language of earlier adverts by IBM, this feature returned to the theme of "colorblind" messaging.29

Fig 20. Publix (2006). Images of interracial groups, particularly children, were becoming an increasingly popular component of King holiday features by the late 1990s and early 2000s. 7 school children, appearing Black, White, and possibly mixed race, bend over the low lens for a stylized group photo with puffy clouds above. Headline reads "He dreamed of this day."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 20.

Publix (2006). Images of interracial groups, particularly children, were becoming an increasingly popular component of King holiday features by the late 1990s and early 2000s.30

As King-themed advertising became more widespread, Black cultural producers began to push back. One example can be seen in this 2006 clip from the first season of popular animated series The Boondocks, which landed creator Aaron McGruder a Peabody Award.
Video 4.

As King-themed advertising became more widespread, Black cultural producers began to push back. One example can be seen in this 2006 clip from the first season of popular animated series The Boondocks, which landed creator Aaron McGruder a Peabody Award.31

Click to view video

Fig 21. Toyota (2007). This advert showcases a now familiar approach to commemorative campaigns: a photograph or image of King, a politically ambiguous appeal to his memory or "message," and subtle corporate branding. Large photo of King at microphones outdoors. The text uses Toyota's then tagline "moving forward," to say "Moving forward starts with not leaving his message behind."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 21.

Toyota (2007). This advert showcases a now familiar approach to commemorative campaigns: a photograph or image of King, a politically ambiguous appeal to his memory or "message," and subtle corporate branding.32

Fig 22. Thalia Surf (2011). This ill-conceived advert received national attention in 2011, demonstrating the dangers of small business or local companies attempting to capitalize on the King holiday. A wetsuited surfer has King's head convincingly Photoshopped on it, and the store offers a discount on "black" products (i.e. black neoprene wetsuits). The headline reads "Respect."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 22.

Thalia Surf (2011). This ill-conceived advert received national attention in 2011, demonstrating the dangers of small business or local companies attempting to capitalize on the King holiday.33

Fig 23. Starbucks (2015). In contrast to the public backlash to advertising missteps such as the previous feature, this Starbucks campaign which appeared online and print media was applauded as "simple" and "powerful" by outlets such as Adweek. A black page has the alphabet written backwards highlighting MLK in red. The text reads "It's time to look at things differently. Again."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 23.

Starbucks (2015). In contrast to the public backlash to advertising missteps such as the previous feature, this Starbucks campaign which appeared online and print media was applauded as "simple" and "powerful" by outlets such as Adweek.34

Fig 24. Comcast (2017). Another sophisticated campaign; one which combined compelling visuals with a strong central message, but which also avoided staking out a clear political position. A marble background has an artsy composition of people of color shaped into a King silhouette. Headline reads "Together, we can."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 24.

Comcast (2017). Another sophisticated campaign; one which combined compelling visuals with a strong central message, but which also avoided staking out a clear political position.35

Dodge (2018). While many earlier business missteps can be attributed to a lack of marketing planning or investment, this Dodge campaign which aired during Super Bowl VII was still widely criticized despite high production values.
Video 5.

Dodge (2018). While many earlier business missteps can be attributed to a lack of marketing planning or investment, this Dodge campaign which aired during Super Bowl VII was still widely criticized despite high production values.36

Click to view video

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2018). This stand-up about the Dodge ad provides a humorous reminder of the potential dangers facing American businesses which seek to capitalize on King's memory.
Video 6.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2018). This stand-up about the Dodge ad provides a humorous reminder of the potential dangers facing American businesses which seek to capitalize on King's memory.37

Click to view video

E. James West

E. James West is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in history at Northumbria University, UK. He is the author of Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett Jr.: Popular Black History in Postwar America (University of Illinois Press, 2020). West can be contacted at ejwestuk@gmail.com.

Footnotes

1. David Chappell, Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Random House, 2014); William Jones, "Working-Class Hero," The Nation, January 11, 2016.

2. Nicholas Laham, The Reagan Presidency and the Politics of Race: In Pursuit of Colorblind Justice and Limited Government (London: Praeger, 1998).

3. See Figure 6 below. For more on the efforts of the King estate to privatize King's intellectual property and commercialize his legacy see Daniel Fleming, "'I Have A Copyright': The Privatization of Martin Luther King's Dream," Journal of African American History 103 (2018): 369–401.

4. Cornel West, "Introduction," in The Radical King (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), xii-xiii.

5. Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella, "Reagan Used MLK Day to Undermine Racial Justice," Boston Review, January 15, 2017.

6. Stuart Elliott, "The Media Business," New York Times, February 9, 1996.

7. David Andreatta, "MLK Day resists commercialism," Democrat & Chronicle, January 15, 2016.

8. Ebony, January 1981, 3.

9. Ebony, January 1985, 83.

10. Black Enterprise, January 1986, 19.

11. Ebony, January 1987, 29.

12. Black Enterprise, February 1987, 109.

13. Ebony, January 1988, 31.

14. RetroBlackMedia, "Sears Companies Salutes Martin Luther King Jr. (1988)," YouTube, January 17, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU1s9hzrB3g.

15. RetroBlackMedia, "Burger King Salutes Martin Luther King Jr. (1988)," YouTube, January 17, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEIhGBjC8iU.

16. Ebony, January 1989, 139.

17. Black Enterprise, January 1990, 21.

18. Black Enterprise, January 1991, 20.

19. Black Enterprise, January 1991, 58.

20. Black Enterprise, January 1991, 6.

21. Ebony, January 1992, 77.

22. Black Enterprise, January 1993, 26.

23. ewjxn, "1993 McDonalds MLK Martin Luther King Candle TV Commercial," YouTube, September 12, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8t2ZrWqZFMU.

24. The Crisis, January 1994, 21.

25. Black Enterprise, January 1995, 7.

26. Ebony, January 1995, 87.

27. Ebony, January 1995, 49.

28. Black Enterprise, January 1996, 55.

29. Ebony, January 2001, 11.

30. Ebony, January 2006, 135.

31. Philalethes, "'Return of the King' Part 7," YouTube, January 3, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsGIObVsA0M..

32. Ebony, January 2007, 147.

33. "Surf Shop Apologizes for 'All Black' MLK Day Sale," Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2011, https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/news/tn-cpt-0121-surfshop-20110120-story.html.

34. Jonathan Capehart, "A Powerful Starbucks Homage to MLK." Washington Post, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/01/19/a-powerful-starbucks-homage-to-mlk/.

35. "'MLK Day' Commemorative Ads for Comcast NBCUniversal," Robert Salm, https://www.robertsalm.com/Comcast-NBCUniversal-2017-MLK-Day.

36. OffRoadBrasil, "2018 Commercial do SuperBowl Dodge RAM," YouTube, February 5, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jO0VkYgtPHw.

37. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, "The MLK Super Bowl Ad Dodge Didn't Show You," YouTube, February 6, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bZ2yW9bDr4.

Additional Information

ISSN
2475-1790
Launched on MUSE
2021-04-28
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.