Every year since 1983 when Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday, advertisers have walked  a fine line between exploitation and celebration of his legacy. There is a delicate balance to making an ad that will endear your brand to consumers and not come off as comparing a company, product, or service to King and the civil rights movement. This year many brands were successful: Starbucks, Cheesecake Factory, and White Castle all opted to post somber or inspiring quotes from King in commemoration of the holiday. Other brands like the Seattle Seahawks football team had to apologize for their MLK Day tweet which alienated fans:

Posted after a tough win, fans felt the Seahawks were comparing football with the struggle for civil rights.

“It’s 100 percent okay for brands to celebrate this holiday,” said Mike Street, Senior Digital Strategist and host of the #SmartBrownVoices podcast, “but they must do so tastefully and respectfully.” Street is wary of brands that use the holiday opportunistically with cheap sales hoping to capitalize on the day off from work. He feels the best things brands can do is participate. MLK Day is designated as a national day of service and brands that took that to heart and set out to teach had the best response.

Street approved of the way MTV networks and the NBA created content around the holiday. MTV’s black and white content focused on empowering viewers to talk about race relations in America and the NBA shared King’s speeches. He hoped brands may have been more cautious after last year when consumers reacted strongly to organizations like PETA and PornHub’s marketing. PETA was accused of comparing black Americans to animals, something the company had come under fire for in the past.

With a respectful approaches, brands small and global can reach out to consumers.  Street highly recommend businesses start with thoughtful posting. If a brand truly feels they can’t post respectfully, it’s perfectly fine to bow out. “In today’s time people want brands that stand for something,” he continued. “Your audience will respect you more if you are seen as a brand that stand for more than just the money you can get from them.” Brands can be creative with their actions, like making donations to organizations that support underserved communities or sponsoring a day of community service which will leave more of an impression than a quote photoshopped onto a pretty background.

Image courtesy Digital Collections, UIC Library

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