A Super Bowl commercial for Dodge Ram trucks that used part of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. angered many who saw it.
The commercial shows scenes of people helping each other, and close-ups of trucks, as King delivers part of his “Drum Major Instinct” speech on greatness and service. He delivered the speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta 50 years ago on February 4, just two months before he was assassinated.
“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant,” King’s booming voice can be heard in the voiceover, during part of which a Ram truck powers through mud.
“That’s a new definition of greatness ... by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great ...”
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The commercial ends with the tagline, “Built to Serve,” with the Ram logo.
King’s youngest daughter, Bernice, and The King Center founded by his widow Coretta Scott King, quickly let it be known they weren’t the ones who approved the commercial.
“Neither @TheKingCenter nor @BerniceKing is the entity that approves the use of #MLK’s words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight’s @Dodge #SuperBowl commercial,” the center said in a tweet.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the post appears to suggest that Bernice King’s brothers - Martin Luther King III and Dexter King - with whom she has feuded in the past over the sale of their father’s possessions, would have had the power to approve the commercial.
The spot angered many people who sounded off passionately on social media, a backlash echoed in this tweet from Wired editor Nicholas Thompson: “Are MLK’s words really being used right now to sell cars?”
People left angry comments on the YouTube video, too.
“At a time when we really need MLK's encouraging words to come together for a greater good, Ram is selling trucks to a hungry-hurting nation. Ugh!!”
“It’s a good thing MLK’s legacy is now immortalized as a Ram truck.”
People noted the irony that, in the same speech, King spoke of the danger of overspending on things such as cars, and held forth on why people “are so often taken by advertisers” and how advertisements exploit “a regressed ego.”
“The worst thing about the commercial — besides the fact that it co-opts and corrupts the slain civil rights leader in the middle of Black History Month — is that it takes King’s comments out of context,” wrote Leonard Greene in The New York Daily News.
“Before King launched into his message about service, he actually had something to say about how to buy a car.”
Here’s part of that speech that the commercial didn’t use.
“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion,” King said in the speech.
“And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it…
“It often causes us to live above our means. It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.”
Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told the The New York Times the commercial was “the wrong mistake to make given everything that’s going on in the U.S. right now. There’s so much emotion right now around race in this country that this was a high-risk move, and clearly it’s not going over very well.”
Ram did not release the commercial before the game, as many other advertisers did.
“I think it was well intentioned, but they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Calkins told the Times. “They did not release this ahead of time, so they went for the surprise. They got that, but at the same time, they now have a big problem with feedback and people being upset.”
The use of King’s voice was jarring and surprising because his estate is “notoriously litigious when it comes to the use of his speeches without permission, and restrictive when it comes to requests,” wrote Slate.
But Ram Trucks got permission from the MLK Estate, which is separate from the King Center established by King’s widow, Slate reported.
“Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances,” said a statement from Eric D. Tidwell, managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, the licensing agency for the estate.
“We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others.”
That message got through to people who liked the commercial.
“I’d like to thank Ram Trucks for bringing this amazing speech to the public spotlight during the most watch sports event in the world,” wrote one person on YouTube. “I'm glad that everyone got to hear his words once again.
“Loved it,” wrote another. “Commercial is more about his speech than ‘buy a Ram.’”
Another person wrote: ”People are so negative these days. I've never heard this MLK speech before and it was great speech. I took it as a commercial that was attempting to unify each other considering all the recent racial events and that no matter where we come from we all have the potential to do great things. I just thought it was trying to send a positive message.”
Bernice King posted a link to the entire speech and urged people to listen to it and her father’s other works.