Martin Luther King Jr.: Selling cars from the grave?

A new ad for a $175,000 Mercedes features footage of the slain civil rights leader. Is it wrong to use King as a corporate pitchman?

A new ad for the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. has some people raising their eyebrows
(Image credit: Corbis)

The video: An ad for the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG features a montage of people triumphantly raising their arms throughout history, from the Wright brothers at their first airplane flight to a victorious Muhammad Ali to Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his famous "I have a dream" speech. The images are meant to echo the look of Mercedes' "awesome supercar," which has a $175,000 price tag and roof-hinged doors that open upward like wings — or like the arms of a person reaching for the sky. "It's a universal gesture," actor Jon Hamm in the voiceover, "a way of telling the world you did it."

The reaction: A luxury car with a sticker price well into the six figures "probably wasn't what King had in mind when he was advocating economic justice for America's poor in the 1960s," says Paul Farhi in The Washington Post. Then again, this isn't the first time King's heirs have been criticized for trying to "commercialize King's legacy." Before licensing the footage to Mercedes, they faced criticism for allowing the slain civil rights leader's image to be used in a number of ads, such as Chevrolet's 2006 "Our Country" spot, France's Alcatel Americas, and Apple's "Think Different" campaign. This does seem a bit "ghoulish," says Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon. But the King Foundation, which licenses the civil rights icon's image, has "a right to make money, especially in this economy." And the bottom line is that King's image is a dependable, if "absurdly manipulative," device that works perfectly when advertisers want to evoke that "human nature is AWESOME" feeling. Watch the ad below:

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