Mercedes tries to use Martin Luther King's image to drive car sales

By Paul Farhi
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr.: preacher, civil rights icon, martyr -- and German luxury-car pitchman?

Well, yes. The modern champion of racial emancipation is one of the unlikely stars of a new ad for Mercedes-Benz that uses some famous faces and evokes some historical moments, real and staged, on behalf of the automaker's most advanced, and most expensive, new model.

Grainy footage of King, arms raised in mid-oratory, appears briefly in the commercial, followed by flashes of others in a similar posture, including Muhammad Ali dancing around a fallen ring opponent, the late maestro Leonard Bernstein in concert and tennis star Roger Federer falling to his knees to celebrate a victory. There's also a snippet of people raising their arms in triumph during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and a re-created scene of technicians exulting over the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

The message: Raising your arms is a universal symbol of triumph -- just like the raised "gull-wing" doors of the new Mercedes SLS AMG coupe. The visual echo is intended, say the ad's creators.

While the ad doesn't mention it, the SLS AMG retails for $175,000 -- which probably wasn't what King had in mind when he was advocating economic justice for America's poor in the 1960s.

This isn't the first time King has been pressed into service as a commercial pitchman. Apple Inc. used an image of King in 1999 in its "Think Different" campaign, which also featured such major 20th-century figures as Gandhi and Picasso. Alcatel Americas, a French-owned telecommunications company, featured footage of King's "I Have a Dream" speech in a 2001 commercial that showed him speaking to an empty Mall, which Alcatel saw as demonstrating the need to "connect" with an audience.

Mercedes's new ad is reminiscent of a 2006 Chevrolet pickup truck ad that used a montage of historic events and images, including King, Ali, the moon landing, the Vietnam War and a 9/11 memorial in New York. The ad was set to a John Mellencamp song, "Our Country."

The King family's efforts to commercialize King's legacy have drawn periodic criticism, beginning in 1997 when the family struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Time Warner to produce recordings of his speeches and books based on his writings. The family's supporters said the arrangement would spread King's message and help support the nonprofit King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

King's heirs licensed the footage to Mercedes for an undisclosed fee through their for-profit company, Intellectual Properties Management of Atlanta. IPM's representatives didn't respond to requests for comment.

Mercedes's use of King's image raises a few issues for Clayborne Carson, director of the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and the editor of King's papers. Carson says he was surprised by the German automaker's attempt to associate its high-end cars with King, particularly at a time when such luxury goods are unattainable for more and more Americans.

"I wish that whenever King is used in an ad the purpose is to draw attention to King and his legacy and not simply as a way to attract attention to the advertiser," Carson says. "The message should be, 'We're honoring King,' instead of, 'You should buy a Mercedes.' " In this case, "you have to ask: Is King being used to draw consumers to a product, or is the company using its clout to associate itself with a positive legacy? Sometimes it's a close call, but clearly, here the intent is to sell Mercedeses."

Executives at Merkley & Partners of New York, Mercedes USA's domestic ad agency, say the spot evolved late last year when they saw the first production photos of the new SLS AMG. Andy Hirsch, the agency's creative director, noticed that the doors of the car, when raised, looked like a person gesturing in victory. Hence the theme for the ad, playing off "the universality of the gesture," says Alex Gellert, Merkley's chief executive.

The agency assembled a series of scenes tying in to the gesture: a runner crossing the finish line, a rock band finishing a song to cheers, a young pitcher getting the last out, etc. The famous individuals, from King to Federer to skater Michelle Kwan, were chosen because "they're people we all look up to," according to Hirsch.

Gellert acknowledges that King isn't actually making a triumphal gesture in the footage used in the ad. "It's more like punctuation," he said.

The King segment involved a bit of staging. In the commercial, his image appears on an old TV set as a young couple watch in their living room -- a mash-up of old and new meant to evoke the moment when King's speeches made the news.

Mercedes and its agency have heard only praise for the commercial since it began airing nationally, mostly during sports events and late-night shows, Gellert says.

"We're not making any claim about King or saying that we're doing anything as societally important as what he did," he says. "We're just saying that there's this gesture that people do when they want to celebrate and that we have a car that's the best it can be and is worth celebrating. . . . What Martin Luther King did was far more important than any product."

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