As America marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day this Monday, it will be a time for many to pause and consider the life and legacy of the late civic-rights leader. But for retailers, party promoters and others, it will be a time to cash in - often in a way that critics say is at odds with King's message of peace, faith and unity.
Already, many stores and brands are touting discounts connected to the holiday, from a luggage sale at Samsonite.com (shoppers are advised to use the promo code MLKOFFER) to a buy-one-get-one-free offer at clothing retailer Delias.com (promo code MLKFREE). And nightclubs are hosting holiday bashes, often using Photoshopped images of King (think the civil-rights leader as a gold chain-sporting DJ) in their promotional materials.
Topping it off: Hennessy, a cognac brand that's popular in the African-American community (Ebony magazine dubbed it the "unofficial official spirit of Black America"), suggested Martin Luther King Jr. Day cocktail ideas (or "Drinks MLK Jr. Would Be Proud Of"). A publicity firm representing the brand sent out an email offering recipes for such sips as the "Introspective Moment" and the "Privateer," both made with Hennessy, that "are perfect for any indoor gathering to celebrate Dr. King's life."
To say the least, many civil-rights activists, including those connected with Dr. King's family, have not been pleased with such promotions.
"We do try to discourage that as much as we can," said Steve Klein, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based King Center, which was established by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, as a memorial and educational institution.
At the same time, retail and marketing experts say the trend is not unexpected: Just as other dates on the calendar have lost some of their original meaning over time - think Thanksgiving sales that now start before the turkey is even out of the oven - it was only a matter of time before King Day became a selling opportunity. Even Steve Klein of the King Center agreed: "In the United States, holidays do get commercialized," he said, though he added that Martin Luther King Day has also become a platform for community service - to the point that "we feel like the high tone dwarfs the crass commercialism."
In some cases, the commercialization has been greeted with a certain skepticism, if not comical indignation (consider this " Colbert Report " take). In other cases, it's been subject to considerable backlash: When word got out this year about a " Freedom 2 Twerk Martin Luther King Day Weekend Party " in Flint, Mich., a public uproar ensued, and the owner of the party space canceled the event.
Similarly, Hennessy has already distanced itself from the Dr. King Day cocktail pitch it sent out on Wednesday. "Hennessy deeply regrets the release of this ... inappropriate media communication," said brand spokesperson Lily Rougeot in an email on Thursday. "The tone and content of the communication are contrary to the core values of Hennessy. We are reviewing the incident to make sure that mistakes like this do not happen in the future."
It's difficult to estimate just how significant a marketing and merchandising bonanza King Day, established as a federal holiday in 1986, has become. The National Retail Federation doesn't track its sales figures, as it does with other key holiday shopping periods. But Jamie Catmull, a spokesperson for the financial site GoBankingRates.com, said that "year after year we see more stores and institutions doing something."
Still, as Catmull added, it's a bit of a tightrope act, since retailers know the holiday is held in a slightly different regard than the sales spree that is, say, Presidents Day. Martin Luther King Day, Catmull said, "seems the wrong kind of holiday to commercialize."