Revisionist History

Picasso assembles a Mercedes. Fred Astaire dances with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. Apple salutes the likes of Gandhi, Albert Einstein and John Lennon.

Dead actors, icons and pop stars litter the commercial landscape these days. So why am I so upset about spots that use images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lou Gehrig?

The ads, the first of several in Arnold’s “Speeches” campaign for French telco Alcatel, use archival footage of King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and Gehrig’s heart-wrenching farewell at Yankee Sta dium in 1939. Gehrig, suffering from a debilitating disease that had left him weak and frail, somehow held it together enough to say, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Both are powerful moments in the history of the 20th century. Neither is merely just speech, but a symbol of something greater—a vision of racial harmony, grace in the face of death. The black-and-white images remain potent today.

But Arnold had something else in mind. To underscore its client’s point that “before you can inspire, you must connect,” the Boston agency took the liberty of erasing the 250,000 people who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and emptying the Bronx stands of 62,000 fans.

Attention-getting? Sure. Respectful? Lawyers for the MLK and Gehrig estates say so.

Still, there’s something distasteful about manipulating images of our past, particularly those from times when not everyone and everything was for sale.

Ah, but maybe I’m just old-fashioned—behind the times, even. Heck, the technology has improved since 1997, when Cleveland shop Meldrum & Fewsmith doctored clips from Royal Wedding and Easter Parade to create the Astaire vacuum dance.

Besides, Alcatel did have the blessings of the King and Gehrig families. And in the case of the Gehrig ad, most of the licensing fees paid by Alcatel for the footage will go toward medical research, per the wishes of the ballplayer’s late widow, Eleanor. Who am I to deprive a worthy cause?

But when I asked a handful of New York creative chiefs about the work, I discovered I was not alone.

“It’s hideous,” says a creative director at one $100 million shop. “No way is this consistent with the spirit of these people.”

“It kind of bugs me, too, in a weird way,” admits Saatchi & Saatchi’s Tod Seisser. “On the one hand, it’s kind of cool how they do it. But on the other hand, I know what you’re saying about certain things kind of being sacred. … In this case, they less celebrated Martin Luther King than they sort of appropriated Martin Luther King.”

Fallon’s Jamie Barrett simply doesn’t understand the connection to Alcatel. And though he accepts the use of icons in advertising, he says each of these executions had better be perfect. “If you’re going to rob from history,” he argues, “you should be held to a higher standard.”

Indeed.

A final note: None of these guys could recall the name of the brand.