Exploitation of Aretha Franklin

Did Mary Kay Exploit “Queen Aretha” in Her Most Vulnerable Hour? 

Aretha Franklin’s eight-hour memorial service on August 31, 2018, represented the culmination of a week-long memorial celebration in Detroit, MI. The memorial celebration included a public concert at Chene Park featuring local and national talent and a two-day public viewing of Franklin who laid in repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum for African-American History.

Changes to the funeral services and planned tributes were announced as the week progressed. One such tribute would include pink Cadillacs converging on the City of Detroit from all over the country to pay mass respect to the Queen. The tribute was spearheaded by Crisette Michelle Ellis—a National Director for Mary Kay Corporation who is also wife of Charles H. Ellis, who pastors the Greater Grace Temple mega-church where the Queen’s funeral would be held. Mary Kay Corporation, a multi-level makeup marketing company,  is known for temporarily issuing custom-colored pink Cadillacs to high-revenue generating Mary Kay representatives such as Crisette Ellis. Ellis claimed the pink Cadillac tribute was intended to commemorate Aretha’s “Freeway of Love” song, which discussed riding down the freeway of love in a pink Cadillac.

Various news outlets reported that Mary Kay, Inc. was somewhat leery of Ellis’s plan to host the pink Cadillac tribute. Nonetheless, Mary Kay aided Ellis by setting up a website so that owners of pink Cadillacs could register their intent to participate in the tribute and attend the Queen’s funeral. As one might expect—given the rarity of pink Cadillacs—almost all of the pink Cadillacs that participated in the tribute bore the Mary Kay insignia. There were a few exceptions such as the pink Cadillac driven by Ron Mitchell that was adorned with a badge that read “Aretha Franklin is a Queen.”

Near dusk on the day of the funeral, thousands of Detroiters lined streets to pay a final tribute to the Queen. Detroiters at the corner of 7 Mile and Livernois stood somber, poised with tributary banners and roses to toss in the path of the Queen’s hearse as it turned the corner.  The somber moment of planned respect was transformed into a parade of pink Cadillacs—most of which were devoid of African Americans. One by one, the 130 pink Cadillacs streamed by; the Queen’s hearse followed. Mary Kay reps shouted, “Thank you,”  waved through their car windows, and stood and greeted the crowd through their sunroofs while rocking to the  beat of Aretha’s songs playing on their automobile sound systems.

 Dangerous Precedent: Big Business and Funerals

According to Nielsen, a 30-second Super Bowl ad in 2018 cost an estimated $5 million dollars. While Nielson ratings on the viewership of Franklin’s week of funeral proceedings have yet to be revealed, Nielsen calculated that Michael Jackson’s one-day memorial service commanded about 31.14 million viewers; those totals did not include internet views. There can be no doubt that the Queen’s services commanded massive views. The plethora of articles and coverage Mary Kay received across the globe from its pink Cadillac tribute netted the corporation free advertising worth billions of dollars. For the remainder of history, an internet search of Aretha Franklin’s  name will forever return a sea of images showing Mary Kay pink Cadillacs.

Injecting a corporation into sacred memorial services establishes a dangerous precedent.  While Crisette Ellis asserts that Franklin’s young heirs approved the tribute, Aretha’s heirs could have never imagined in their hour of grief that the pink Cadillac tribute would evolve into a massive Mary Kay advertising event. No pastor or pastor’s wife should involve a company, especially one with which they are personally affiliated, in sacred funeral proceedings.

Many may have been awestruck by the visual, specifically, rows upon rows of rows and rows of shiny pink Cadillacs, which the funeral home seemed to oppose lining up in the processional. But the staging of the Cadillacs at the beginning of the processional route allowed the drivers to enter the processional with ease ahead of the Queen’s hearse.

Corporations, including Mary Kay, are wholly responsible for actions carried out in their name. Mary Kay, Inc. executives cannot be allowed to hide their hands when they leveraged for their benefit the unique brand and legacy Aretha Franklin tirelessly built over decades. According to an intellectual property attorney, who asked to remain nameless, the heirs of Aretha Franklin may have a significant legal cause of action due to Mary Kay’s infringement upon Aretha’s private processional.  While many embraced the pink Cadillac tribute, a deeper look  might reveal the tragic exploitation of our “Queen” during her final hours.

Note: A call was placed to Mary Kay, Inc. for comment. The call was not returned.

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