Is Dallas Commercializing the Kennedy Assassination?

Half a century later, the city struggles to define its brand

The tagline on the Visit Dallas home page says it all: “Dallas: Big Things Happen Here.”

Perhaps at no time more than today—the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination—will those words take on a darker dualism. This is especially so for the city’s business community, which must wrestle with a highly unusual mix of emotions: optimism over the thousands of tourists due to come to town, and dread over the reason why they’re coming. While Dallas’ residents come to terms with emotions ranging from guilt to anger, the proper stance for Dallas—the brand—to take is harder to determine.

“We’re not going out there packaging JFK,” Visit Dallas’ president Phillip Jones recently told the Dallas Morning News. “We recognize that [the 50th anniversary] is a very solemn event. We want to make sure that people who come to Dallas for this event are not offended by some sort of Las Vegas-style marketing.”

That, visitors will not find—but they will find plenty of JFK-related attractions and activities. Some are tasteful, others less so. But all are inextricably connected to the business and image of the city and, today at least, represent the uneasy mix of mourning and revenue.

“It’s a very difficult balance, a line to walk,” Tom Huang, Sunday and Enterprise Editor at the Dallas Morning News, told Adweek. “The CVB understands how somber an event this is and, at the same time, there’s an opportunity to show visitors what Dallas is like now, and [businesses] need to take advantage of that.”

Indeed, many are. Aside from the official commemoration to be held in Dealey Plaza (a ticketed event limited to 5,000 attendees), the Dallas Symphony will stage a JFK Memorial Concert starring Joshua Bell. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is exhibiting the artworks that hung in JFK’s suite at the Hotel Texas back in 1963. The Dallas Morning News has hosted a yearlong assassination-related news site called JFK50, produced a book and documentary, and sponsored a well attended symposium.

Huang admits that his paper “faced the same challenge” as any other Dallas business in wrestling with the difference between marking the sad anniversary and benefiting from it. “We don’t want to make money off a tragedy,” he said, “but we have to sustain the enterprise.”

Some businesses appear to have fewer qualms about making money off the tragedy. On the JFK Assassination Tour (adults, $20), passengers packed into an ersatz trolley car can travel the motorcade route and visit sites including the Grassy Knoll and Parkland Hospital. “Was it as simple as a lone gunman?” asks the Big D Fun Tours website, “…or was it something more?” Over at the Texas Theater—where Oliver Stone’s JFK is playing this weekend—visitors can still buy a popcorn and sit in the seat in which police nabbed gunman Lee Harvey Oswald.

Unsavory as some of these diversions might seem, few can reasonably expect a modern Dallas—many years removed from being the “City of Hate” where “they killed Kennedy”—not to have moved on. Still, both the assassination and its anniversary remain just too raw for some. “Kind of sad Dallas is down for this,” one resident posted on Facebook. “It is best just to tell people you are from Fort Worth.”