When Freedom’s Ring Isn’t a Cash Register’s

You would have been hard-pressed to find a New York politician or civic leader who didn’t feel duty-bound to invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, the day his birthday was observed. But there was one vital group of New Yorkers who, as usual, gave Dr. King a pass. They were those who keep this city’s commerce humming.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

It remains an intriguing phenomenon, one noted by me in a column years ago.

Unlike just about every major national holiday — Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day, Lincoln’s Birthday or the Washington’s Birthday remembrance popularly known as Presidents’ Day — King Day is not invoked as a reason for you to run out to buy a new toaster or an iPad. No store is known to have had the dubious taste to advertise a mid-January white sale in the name of the murdered civil rights figure.

This doesn’t mean that holiday bargains were not advertised. They were usually rendered in anodyne fashion, though, as a “weekend sales event.”

Sure, there were exceptions, like a car dealership in Brooklyn and a furniture warehouse in the Bronx that capitalized on the King name in newspaper advertisements. But in the main, merchandisers held in check their instinct to commercialize every possible occasion.

Macy’s took out full-page newspaper ads on Monday, but it did so to quote Dr. King and to proclaim its sponsorship of a national memorial to him. It did not then say something like how lamb’s wool sweaters were going for only $49.99.

“It’s messaging from the perspective of the reader’s priorities, as opposed to the company’s priorities,” said Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, a Chicago-based Web site that focuses on African-American consumers and those who advertise to them. “It’s values-driven. It’s respect-driven.”

That it is. One would have thought, however, that by now some of the reverence might have faded.

Not that stores would be so crass as to trot out King lookalikes the way they routinely have actors in fake beards parade around as Lincoln to hawk flat-screen TVs. Nonetheless, Dr. King, assassinated in 1968, is at this point more an abstraction for many people than a flesh-and-blood figure. Anyone under age 50, which means most New Yorkers, would have only the dimmest memory of him, if any at all.

Yet businesses continue to be extremely cautious.

“He’s been held up as being above the fray in the commercial world,” said Sheryl Huggins Salomon, managing editor of The Root, an online magazine of culture and politics for an African-American audience. “He was a minister. His focus was on justice. It was on equality. In no way did he ever give the impression of trying to profit from that.”

No he didn’t. But his family has, and that fact may inhibit some advertisers. “He has a family that protects his image fiercely,” Ms. Huggins Salomon said, adding: “It’s good to keep his image clean, so to speak. That being said, they’ve also sued companies in the past for unauthorized use of his image.”

Marc E. Babej, a partner at Reason Inc., a marketing strategy firm in New York, suggested that major businesses need no implied threat of this sort. “A larger advertiser would be more cautious about offending any part of its target audience,” Mr. Babej said. “You could see how a lot of people, particularly African-Americans, could be offended by the trivialization of the greatest African-American of the 20th century.”

To him, this advertiser tentativeness reflects a lingering “unease and awkwardness that exists in society on race relations.” There was little “upside,” he said, for a business to baldly exploit Dr. King’s image or words.

Mr. Smikle agreed, but said more was at stake.

“It’s a holiday commemorating a set of principles, and those principles are still very much a part of the American conversation,” he said. “Not having resolved the issues that surrounded Dr. King’s life and mission, we don’t see opportunism taking hold with the holiday.”

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