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CORPORATE FOCUS: Big Business Has a Dream

We've heard it said that commercialism will keep expanding its frontiers until every boundary has been smashed and non-commercial values are completely extinguished. Now that Dr.King is being used to hawk telecom products, we are rapidly approaching that point.
 
 
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We've heard it said that commercialism will keep expanding its frontiers until every boundary has been smashed and non-commercial values are completely extinguished.

Let's now admit that we are rapidly approaching that point.

We are friends with a seven-year-old, who has been sheltered to a large degree from the ravages of commercialism, who likes baseball, and who likes to sing that American classic "Take me out to the Ballgame."

We were driving him to see a major league ballgame the other day, running late, listening to the first inning on the radio, when an jingle for an oil company came on -- "Take me Out to Sunoco."

"What's Sunoco?" the seven-year old asked.

"Sun Oil Company," we said in shock.

Slowly, baseball has been giving in to the creep of commercial culture. Of course, for years, ads have played a dominant role at the ballparks. But now things are getting out of control.

Every time the New York Yankees turn a double play, the Yankees play-by-play announcers are required, by contract, to say "There's Another Jiffy Lube Double Play." When Yankee skipper Joe Torre pulls the starting pitcher and calls for a relief pitcher, the Yankees announcers must say there's a "Geico Direct Call to the Bullpen." And so on.

And now, the forces of commercialism have grabbed onto one of baseball's all-time heroes, The Ironman, Lou Gehrig.

Alcatel, the French telecommunications firm that is using Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in national television and print ads, has obtained the rights to Gehrig's famous 1939 farewell speech at Yankee Stadium.

In that speech, despite having a fatal disease that bears his name -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Gehrig told the Yankee stadium crowd on that day he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

We called up Brian Murphy, the U.S. spokesperson for Alcatel and asked him about the Gehrig ad. He said that decision on whether to run the ad would be made with a few weeks.

We made the point that Dr. King was not about commercialism and would never have allowed his name to be used for commercial purposes.

We reminded Murphy that there has been strong criticism from the civil rights community over the use of Dr. King to sell the French company's telephone equipment.

On the Today Show last month, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP and a colleague of Dr. King's, ripped into Alcatel.

"It just seems to me that some things ought to be sacrosanct," Bond said. "Some things ought not be commercialized. Martin Luther King is one of those icons of the movement. This just strikes me as leading us further and further down a dangerous path. I can imagine some day seeing Franklin Roosevelt saying, 'We have nothing to fear but headache pain,' or John F. Kennedy saying, 'Ask not what you can do for your country, but what you could do for Country Ham.' It just strikes me as a further intrusion of commercialism into some of the -- one of the most important icons of the 20th century."

Murphy admitted that the company has received "mixed reactions" to the King, but defended the company's course, reminding us that the King estate was paid for the rights to the "I Have a Dream" speech.

How much? we asked.

"That's proprietary information," he said.

"We worked with the King Foundation, the King estate throughout the process, they approved the King ad -- all along we wanted to make sure we were honoring Dr. King and we feel we did," Murphy said. "We believe we did the right thing."

But what about the fact that Dr. King would never have allowed such a thing, that he was disappointed that our country had failed "to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism."

"I don't know the man," Murphy blurted out.

Clearly you don't.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).