Companies are always trying to spiff up their images. Whether they sell cars, clothing, or fast food, businesses work hard to make consumers believe they stand for something bigger than merely "selling things". Chevrolet's newest online initiative aims to do that by aligning the brand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In recent years, we've seen a number of companies take the "higher purpose" premise to the extreme -- companies grounded in social entrepreneurship like Tom's Shoes, which gives one pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair bought on its website, or Warby-Parker, which does the same thing for eyeglasses. Apple's legendary "Think Different" campaign didn't make such grand philanthropic promises, but it tried very hard to persuade consumers that Apple's intentions were as noble as those of Gandhi and Einstein.
Steve Jobs & Co. used that sort of branding to their advantage, and for a long time, Apple was considered an underdog, fighting the good fight against the Microsoft behemoth. But automakers haven't always been successful at such campaigns -- at least, not when it comes to tapping the power of historical figures.
Think back a year or so and recall one of Olivier Francois' first ads for the Chrysler 300 -- the clip featuring Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and Mikhail Gorbachev that ended with a dedication to Burmese dissident (and Nobel laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi. In case you missed it, here's a refresher:
Chrysler took a lot of heat for that ad -- and not just because its weird, airy message came at a time when Chrysler was on the rocks, receiving major federal bailout dough. The company was also criticized for using images of political revolutionaries for commercial gain. Some of our friends snarked, "Why don't they just go whole-hog and invoke Dr. King?"
Now, their wish has come true.
Over the holiday weekend, Chevrolet rolled out the 2011 MLK Reading Project. It's an online initiative that captures the voices of people around the globe reading the words of Dr. King. Visitors have three options when they arrive at the website: they can (a) record themselves reading one of King's quotes, (b) listen to those quotes read by others, or (c) hit a "mashup" button to hear "everyone's voice in one place". (That last bit doesn't seem to be active yet, so we're not sure what it does.) If visitors log in through Facebook Connect, they can hear readings given by their friends.
So, how does this make you feel?
On the one hand, it's always dicey to appropriate figures like Dr. King for marketing purposes -- and at heart, this is part of a marketing campaign for Chevrolet, so the commercial aims are undeniable. (If it were purely charitable, the project probably would've been funded via the General Motors Foundation.) In the "About the Project" section, it's explained that the 2011 MLK Reading Project is meant to generate excitement and awareness about the August 28 unveiling of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., but if so, it's slightly strange that links to the memorial's website are pushed to the periphery. And we have to admit, the project seems a little simple at the moment -- but maybe it'll evolve in the coming months.
(We could also mention at least one glaring typo on the splash page, which seems weird for such an otherwise beautiful site, but we suppose even proofreaders need a weekend off.)
On the other hand, the language about Chevy's devotion to Dr. King and his legacy seems genuine, and no one can argue that reading his quotes aloud -- and hearing them read by others -- is a bad thing. It may be a simple project, but it's effective.
Also, you have to give Chevrolet and General Motors props for being part of such a major national endeavor. Few other car companies have committed to the memorial -- only Ford, Toyota, and Honda, so far as we can tell, and none of those have matched GM's level of commitment.
If you've got a few minutes, we encourage you to pop over and listen to some of Dr. King's quotes read aloud -- perhaps by some of your friends. If you have a microphone on your computer, pick one and read it yourself. Or, if you don't have the time, check this 30-second clip that talks about the motivation behind the project: