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Sharon Brody: It's a cliche -- holidays have lost their meaning and commercialism has taken over. But MLK Day seemed different... until now. In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (AP)

I settle in at the computer, open my email, take a sip of orange juice, and for the first time in my life perform, perfectly, an actual spit take.

MLK Event: HUGE savings!

That is the subject line of a message from a major national clothing retailer.

First, there’s this: why am I, a person who apparently has not purchased clothing since the Coolidge administration, receiving emails from a major national clothing retailer?

Hush, child. Not all questions can be answered. The ways of the internet are far too mysterious for mere mortals to comprehend. And, um, sometimes a distracted mom clicks the wrong box online when she’s screeching at her teenager about curfew and the next thing you know it’s Gap emails as far as the eye can see.

Moving on, then: can this possibly be for real? MLK Event: HUGE savings!

Barely able to look, one hand covering my eyes, I open the message.

This is, indeed, for real.

The message body offers a photo of a model wearing a sweater that is marked down from $54.95 to $38.47. Alongside the image, it’s a big bold call to action: “THE MLK EVENT/UP TO 50 PERCENT OFF/0VER 500 STYLES/Hurry! Ends Monday 1/20″

body of gap mlk ad jpg

Seriously? A hard-won federal holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader who helped change the very essence of life in America… a moment to honor the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. with service and reflection… is reduced to this? Snag a sweater for thirty-eight dollars and forty-seven cents?

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and get as much as 50 percent off on over 500 styles.

No. Please. Say it ain’t so.

But it is, and that’s not all. This is as good a time as any to digress and flag a more trivial irritant also on display. Are you listening, retailers? A discount on merchandise is not an event. An event is, say, a parade. With confetti, and tubas. Markdowns on pencil skirts do not an event make. Get it? Got it? Good.

There. Now that I’ve fixed that impediment to serenity, we can return to the agitation at hand.

I understand that my dismay over the misguided Gap promotion seems naïve and even unfair. Unfair because I don’t get perky inbox alerts from other retailers so I haven’t noticed what they’re up to on this front — but no doubt The Gap is far from alone. Naïve, because, obviously, this is not a new phenomenon. The incongruous linking of holidays with sales bonanzas has been around for ages. Every Memorial Day, every Veteran’s Day, most of us shake our heads and wonder how these somber national days of remembrance morphed into crass hucksterpaloozas.

Still, somehow I thought Martin Luther King Day was different. The holiday is so — relatively — new, and the man and his work so recently with us. The memories of King himself, the cause, the assassination, the aftermath, the hopes and triumphs and fears and grief, the ongoing battles to right the wrongs.

Yeah, but, dollars off ONLY THROUGH MONDAY!

Here’s what really boggles the mind. The email I received was not designed and approved by a lone wolf 4-year-old. Teams upon teams of gainfully employed and presumably educated adults come up with ideas for sales and the marketing thereof. Who are these individuals? And how did not one of them stop and say, “Hello?  People? Can we liaise a sec? Something just seems… off. Call me crazy, but what if we stick with the huge savings concept — that’s totally awesomesauce, I am so loving it! — and ixnay on the MLK?”

When the mind boggles, trying to unboggle never hurts. I called The Gap. The corporate spokesperson with whom I chatted could not have been nicer, and she allowed as how she was not surprised by my concerns being as, in fact, she shared them. She hinted that an awful lot of customers had already made their displeasure known. The word tone-deaf came into play. And although she could not answer my questions about how many folks on the Gap payroll had been involved in planning and designing and approving this EVENT, she did offer an official statement:

“Celebrating inclusion and diversity is an important part of who we are at Gap brand and something that we strive to reflect, not only in our marketing, but in everything we do. We fell short of this in our recent marketing email and missed an opportunity to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy with our customers. We are committed to doing better in the future.”

Well, thanks. So am I. In the future, when I execute a spit take, I’m committed to keeping juice off the computer keyboard, because boy oh boy is that mess more trouble than it’s worth.

And, until the future shows up, best wishes to you and yours for a meaningful, uneventful, MLK Day.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Flo

    Oh, yes indeed I do agree with Brody’s comments. In the long, long, long ago we commemorated Armistice Day (that shows how long ago that was) in school and quite meaningfully on the 11th month of the 11th day at the 11th hour with a minute of silence throughout the school system, and town. In school there were lessons about the war.

    It is significant that now we honor via the renamed Veterans Day, those who serve and served from all our wars, police actions and skirmishes, and that MLK jr. is honored for his part in helping change over time, American thinking.

    To be fair, many schools do have activities and programs commemorating Veterans Day and MLK Jr. Day. And hopefully lessons are learned about these events and people.

    Yet in this country Retail rules almost always.

  • Armando Gespacho

    MLK day is a day for reflection – and won’t you look good in that dressing room mirror! So Sharon, tell us what you really think!

  • Amelia

    It seems a particular irony that MLK was a socialist and had recently launched a Poor People’s Campaign at the time of his assassination.

  • Lawrence

    Just like Thanksgiving and many other holidays.

    American’s are just desperate to shop, manipulate by advertising and the media.

  • carolyn

    I’ll see you your spit take and raise you an “uckh” utterance. Well written, Ms. Brody.

  • kenbron

    and since we’re considering the minds of the marketing cognoscenti, why did they choose a lily white caucasian model to celebrate MLK. rather than a person of color? thoughtless…

  • Iona Watson

    Usually in a parade, the large bass brass instrument is a Sousaphone.

    In all seriousness, this piece makes an excellent point. A sale on sweaters because of MLK day is embarrassingly crass.

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