The Ram Super Bowl Ad Featuring a Martin Luther King, Jr. Speech Still Rankles

Ram Trucks locks horns with good sense, and good taste, and defeats it.

Ram Trucks on YouTube

I'm sure by now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is fully and painfully aware of its misstep. The automaker now knows that, despite permission from and creative collaboration with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s estate, it should not have run a truck ad using audio clips lifted from the civil rights leader's anti-materialist Drum Major Instinct sermon. Not during the Superbowl—not ever. 

This is no critique of Mr. Marchionne's leadership, as I'm sure this sort of planning is several levels below his pay grade. Hopefully, stern words have been doled out to the deserving. But even though he escapes culpability for this one, he is the head of the company, and as such it reflects upon him. Even so, I feel reasonably certain that the marketing folks responsible for this bit of bad taste had the best intentions. I think they really wanted to create an ad that a positive social message while portraying the brand in a good light. It didn't work.

Directly after the game I contacted Ram, wanting to know whose idea it had been. Naturally, I got the official statement—something to the effect of, "We worked with his relatives, we meant well, etc." By the time I got around to writing this, I had assumed that the flare-up of anger I felt when I first saw the commercial would have died out. It was, after all, only a Super Bowl ad. But the resentment didn't go away. It sort of smoldered. I'm still incensed, as are many others, that anyone would have thought it was a good idea to lift the words from a sermon about leadership and use it for a sales pitch—in the preacher's own voice, no less. Especially when a good bit of the sermon deals with avarice-inducing advertising and the adverse effects of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality upon those of modest or limited economic means.

In the Drum Major Instinct sermon, Dr. King goes so far as to dedicate whole paragraphs of his speech to automobiles. But he doesn't talk about how useful they are to people dedicated to serving their fellow humans. Instead, he points out that the desire to be recognized and praised often causes people to spend more than they ought to, on many things, but specifically motor vehicles.

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.

Does that sound like a man who would lend his voice to an advertisement? It does not. Particularly not when he says earlier in the sermon that the drum major instinct—the desire to be the center of attention—is what feeds advertisers ammunition as they spray us with interlocking fields of persuasion to buy things. 

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. 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.

The ad-consuming public, for its part, has been more than happy to purchase what the peddlers of dazzling sheetmetal are selling. The bigger the better. With the fin and muscle days long gone, the line is now that utility is the key automotive feature we can't live without. We must sit taller, carry more cargo, and cocoon ourselves within the latest and greatest interlinked, life-improving smartphone technologies. Furthermore, we're led to believe that pickup trucks—once the province of farmers and laborers—are an essential part of what defines us as Americans. "They signify American independence and can-do!" the ads crow. They also carry larger loads of bulk groceries from your favorite big box store.

But trucks are anything but practical for most people. They're efficient profit generators for automakers, and therefore practical (if not essential) for manufacturers, to be sure. But most Americans who have convinced themselves of a need for these large, thirsty vehicles can most likely get along fine without them. According to Edmunds, more than 30 percent of trade-ins last year—a blockbuster year for truck sales—were underwater, meaning the value of the vehicle was less than the outstanding balance on the loan associated with it.

Underwater loans are a surefire sign that many people are buying more than they can afford by signing long-term finance deals that seemed more inline with extracting interest revenue than helping individuals purchase basic transportation appropriate to their income. Kelly Blue Book says the average transaction price for full-size pickups—expressed in raw, pre-incentive numbers—is now more than $47,000, an all-time high. To put things into perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has the median household income pegged at less than $58,000.

Dr. King, quoting the advice of economists of his day, told his flock that purchasing a car costing more than half an annual income was unwise. It's still unwise, yet consumers—confident that certain products will improve their lives—seem to have little problem compounding debt in order to buy things for which available money does not exist.

But so often, haven't you seen people making five thousand dollars a year and driving a car that costs six thousand? And they wonder why their ends never meet.

Pulling off an ad that educates the public while simultaneously creating brand impact in a growing, high-profit market was unlikely to begin with. At this particular moment in history, when so many Americans are on edge about things, and one another, the risk of backlash must have registered in the minds of some FCA marketing executives. (That's to say nothing of the racial problems that have remained unsolved since Dr. King spoke these words in 1968.) But apparently, the cooler heads that should have known better didn't speak up, or not with enough force. The kind of half-assed swipe at community service that resulted simply won't do. Professional ad people, who are always under tremendous pressure to stay "on message" are themselves in no position to foster social goodwill campaigns.

If FCA and other companies are at all serious about fostering leadership and service, the best approach probably doesn't involve their products—or curated images of them. Highlighting those companies' support of leadership and service programs—tastefully, sotto voce, with a nod to the company's name given as an afterthought—would be a better move.

The way this Ram ad came together did little more than advance the commodification of a great American thinker and activist. Worse still, it implants within the minds of game-day viewers a sense that owning a truck could make service a little more accessible. The ad is linked to a website with information about Ram Nation, a manufacturer-backed service organization where people use their trucks to help other people. Since when does it take owning a $50,000 truck to lend a helping hand?

Of course, FCA isn't the first company to travel this well-trodden path. Corporate marketing departments are well aware that the people who run Martin Luther King Jr.'s estate have a price (one that is kept confidential). In 2006, Chevrolet used pictures of Dr. King, Rosa Parks and images commemorating the then-recent 9/11 attacks to sell pickup trucks. The civil rights icons' estates received undisclosed sums. A few years later, Mercedes-Benz used an image of Dr. King with his arms raised and outstretched in an ad for a six-figure sports car with flamboyant gullwing doors. The high-end Mercedes most certainly had nothing to do with Dr. King's tireless battle against oppression and poverty.

It's clear that the public is being worn down; bombarded with meaningful images when what they really need is to be able to separate things like service and community from "this soap works better than the others" and "I need more of that to make me happy." There are a bunch of Tide ads that keep things simple and product-related (and, hopefully, don't remind a bunch of kids that they challenged their schoolyard chums to a Tide pod-eating contest). But so many ads in this age of "sponsored content" production attempt to further blur a line—the one between ideals and desire—that has always been difficult to discern. What's next, being forced to endure Martin Luther King, Jr.'s face CGI'd on the features of a living actor, forcing a long-dead man to become someone else's mouthpiece when his legacy should be cast in stone? (That CGI tinkering happened to Peter Cushing in "Rogue One.") Let the man, and others like him, rest. Learn from his words, use them only if your purpose aligns with what he really stood for. Don't expropriate pieces of his thinking and display them, naked of context, as the justification for commercial activity. Because even though we currently live with leaders who exalt commercialism as the highest form of human endeavor, I think we all know better. 

In his sermons, Dr. King exemplified the life of Jesus Christ as one worthy of emulating. He spoke of the lack of importance that material and even social capital played in humanity's relationship with his god, and with itself. But as Jesus has been used as a brand name so many times since the Romans nailed him up, so it seems will Dr. King's memory be paraded for the benefit of cynical opportunists. While I personally do not count myself among the ranks of Christianity's adherents, I do recognize the danger of using the likeness of someone who has been inspirational to so many to sell people products and ideas that may go against their best interests.

The opportunists who aren't outright cynical—and there are no doubt plenty of those—are fooling themselves if they think public service and commercialism can be intertwined this way without the bottom line tugging insistently at those who make decisions about a product's role in the do-gooding. There's no truck that can haul Americans to the point of Dr. King's sermon, which was to incite his neighbors and countrymen to forget about material possessions, and what they might do for our standing among others, and instead strive to live meaningful lives. Imagining his own funeral, he said he wanted to be remembered not as the holder of titles or owner of things, but as a leader committed to justice, peace, and righteousness:

And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

It's ok to dream about big trucks and fancy cars, but don't go out and buy one if you can't afford it. Quit letting these ad folks plant seeds of reverence for their unnecessary products into your brain. Do you really want to work extra to pay off an expensive note when you could be doing something more enjoyable? 

Then again, maybe you like being owned by your possessions—although I doubt very much that's what Dr. King wanted.