A few days before this past MLK Jr. Day, I received an email with the subject line “Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sale.” The email was from NordicTrack, the popular purveyor of a wide variety of exercise equipment. Through Monday the 19th, the company was offering a special sale on select treadmills, exercise bikes, incline trainers, and more.
Within the email were several pictures of NordicTrack machines, as well as photos of two equipment users: well-proportioned young women in snug-fitting sports bras and short-shorts. There was also a quote from Dr. King:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
We live in an age in which celebrity endorsements are commonplace. Athletes and entertainers lend their names to everything from sneakers to SUVs. And, sometimes even after a very famous person has passed, his/her image continues to be used to market products. Should there be bounds to such sponsorship, particularly when making a connection to a person of great social, political, or spiritual significance?
Whatever those limits are, NordicTrack crossed them by using Dr. King’s persona to sell treadmills. Some people, institutions, causes, and events are just too important to be co-opted for relatively trivial commercial purposes. That’s why no retailer should ever hold a “9/11 Sale,” or any manufacturer offer a “Pope John Paul II Promotion.”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Dachau, the site of the Nazi’s first concentration camp in Germany and the place where thousands of people were wrongfully imprisoned and killed. Unlike most places tourists visit, there were no souvenir shops to purchase Dachau memorabilia. Such commercialization would disrespect the memory of all who suffered there and would detract from the solemnity of what has become a kind of sacred place.
Marketing itself is not the issue. The point is to understand that there are proper times and places for everything, and there are commercial connections that should and shouldn’t be made. The association of Dr. King’s legacy with the sale of exercise equipment is one such misguided match.
Was NordicTrack’s MLK Sale a success? I don’t know. Given that some people have off work that day and may spend time shopping on-line, perhaps the company sold more ellipticals than usual. In that case, the promotion may have generated some stakeholder value. That value, however, would have come at the expense of important societal values, making NordicTrack’s tactic “Single-Minded Marketing.”