January 19, 2015

Brands Exploiting MLK Day: Not Just the Most Horrible Offenders, But Why

Crayola MLK

A number of advertising and branding sites called out corporate tweets in poor taste on Martin Luther King day (123). In general though, these posts didn’t go far enough in categorizing the type and degree of the offending message or elaborating why. Focusing on tweets that were visual or hinged on visual language, I’ve identified those that substantially or completely co-opted MLK into the brand, and in some instances, were overtly racist.

As much as everyone loves crayons and the image does connote a human rainbow, the path of “inspiration” here does not begin and end with the man but, in a visually seductive and a shallow and mercantile way, leads the eye (in a mindless way) to the goods.  Also, if you want to really get down to it, it ain’t all that black and brown as much as its another example of how King’s message has been homogenized. If children draw in color, the photo is more a sad and ironic reminder that people today hardly dream about racial equality.

And then, don’t you love the ratio of white crayons to colored crayons?

Staples MLK

If this tweet channels black goals and higher aspirations into base commercial interests (fulfillment is a burger or a new TV set), the idealization of an office product is at least more utilitarian. To the extent King’s message was economic though, it reduces the the larger aspirations of African-Americans to pushing paper clips.

Screen Shot 2015 01 19 at 10 57

With drugs being a significant part of the poverty and inequality equation (with kids also looking to the cheapest over-the-counter medication for social pain relief), how offensive this brand would equate King’s dream with self-medication.

MLK SPA tweet

What’s notable here is how such a tasteful and sophisticated brand can also rip “the King brand.” Who would consciously realize, by the way, that Saks might be absorbing the luster of King’s dream of racial justice into its own signature black and white. The exploitation is also in the typography.

Saks logo

It’s not that the fonts are exactly the same or even that close. Turning King’s most famous and inspiration quote into a classy typographic display, however, not only turns King into Saks’s stylish cousin but, audaciously, lends the sense of King speaking for Saks in the richest and most elite language.


What’s wrong with the Seattle Seahawks tweet that was subsequently deleted yesterday? It’s not just the exploitation of King’s famous phrase to illustrate the team’s momentous comeback in the NFC Championship game. It’s also the sports industrial complex — further stereotyping blacks as athletes and actors — co-oping faith, heart and sacrifice as the vehicle and price of entertainment, not social justice.

PETA MLK tweet

The Business Insider post didn’t point this out, and its possible PETA’s shock value tactics might have something to do with it, but the way the phrase is composed, one reading equates blacks with tortured animals. (The connection comes from the “&” following the reference to King also referring to King’s descendants and followers who continue to fight abuse.) With protests against police violence and the gunning down of black citizens very much in the news now, this is beyond offensive.


I don’t have to tell you how nauseating this is, the Marines MARSOC, or special ops and counter-terrorism arm, “honoring” “King weekend” (not the man himself, you’ll notice) with the image of not just a lone shooter, but a state sniper. (Yes, this tweet was deleted too, followed by an apology.) Besides conjuring King’s assassination, though, the ad infers that the threat to your life and your safety (especially two weeks after the Paris shootings) is coming from blacks or black Muslims. (The braided curtains, the hanging fabric and the cross-hatch pattern on the opposite wall does give this a feeling of the Islamic world.)

Of course — with the use of extreme force and the militarization of local police forces being the catalyst for the racial protests roiling the country today — how ironic the message here is to rest assured, keep those guns in your night tables, and  let the Marine commandos handle it. (And what about the irony here of the spade logo?)

White Castle MLK

Not to completely leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, this hamburger chain goes completely the other way. The White Castle tweet actually does a number on the white-dominated, grid-locked, polarized and bought-off Washington in the brand’s favor while dignifying King’s aura and memory in the process. Simply, the satire has to do with framing Washington and Congress as a “White Castle” and so much of what King’s dream is up against. Touché.

(credit: Marine Tweet – via Uproxx.com via Business Insider)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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