The good and bad of Martin Luther King Day marketing

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The movie “12 Years a Slave,” an Oscar favorite, reopens in theaters Monday. It’s no accident that the film about the racial history of the United States is coming back to theaters on Martin Luther King Day. In fact, the studio behind the movie, Fox Searchlight, is using it for promotion.

The reaction to the timing of the re-release and the studio’s accompanying video, which includes clips from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, has been positive. All the Facebook comments about it mention how great the movie was.

When it comes to MLK Day brand marketing, Fox Searchlight’s efforts seem to be the exception, not the rule. Quite often, it’s ill-advised.

Take, for example, Hennessy cognac’s press release issued this week in which it touted “Mixed Drinks MLK Jr. Would Be Proud Of.” LA Magazine quotes the release:

Monday is Martin Luther King Day, a day used to commemorate the work of the Civil Rights activist. In the middle of winter, beaches and BBQ parties are impractical for the majority of the country that are given the day off. Check out these delicious Hennessy V.S. specialty mixed drinks that are perfect for any indoor gathering to celebrate Dr. King’s life.

The magazine posits that Hennessy, a French company, may not have understood that the holiday isn’t exactly one for partying.

Meanwhile, Gap has been taking flak for its “MLK Event,” during which it’s offering up to half off on various items. Twitter critics have been sharing this screenshot of the clothing chain’s website:

And the complaints look a lot like this:

Gap hasn’t directly acknowledged the criticisms on Twitter, but it has apparently changed the name of its sale to the non-specific “More Weekend Love.”

[RELATED: Ragan’s new distance-learning site houses the most comprehensive video training library for corporate communicators.]

Perhaps the most extreme example is a flyer for a “Freedom 2 Twerk” party in Michigan, which included a Photoshopped image of King wearing a huge gold medallion and making some kind of sign (Jezebel called it a “gang sign”) with his right hand:


The owner of the venue where the party was to be held canceled it after seeing the flyers, which were created by the organizers, Mid-Michigan Teen Parties.

So, the next time you or your brand considers a promotion tied to Martin Luther King Day, make sure it’s appropriate.

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