Using a civil rights hero to sell cars in a Super Bowl commercial may seem absurd on its face, but it’s particularly ridiculous when said civil rights icon actually spoke out against car commercials.
During Sunday’s Super Bowl, Ram Trucks used parts of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to sell pickup trucks. Ram plucked a seemingly innocuous section of King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, told 50 years ago to the day of Super Bowl on Sunday, using it to reinforce the idea that its Ram trucks are “built to serve”:
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. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
As Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief of Current Affairs, demonstrated in a YouTube video (embedded at the top of this article), it’s easy to show the disparity between King’s message and the ad itself. Robinson overlaid the video of the commercial with other parts of the exact same speech Ram quoted — exposing a sermon that is actually anticapitalist and even criticizes car advertisements:
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. … I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. … I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America.
Over the years, people have been taught and remembered King’s words of peaceful protest, unity, and service. But they by and large have forgotten more controversial aspects of his political protest — particularly his message about economic justice and the destructiveness of poverty. The Ram commercial exploits this, using apolitical parts of a speech that, in reality, mocks car advertisements — perhaps figuring that people wouldn’t remember what King really said because they by and large haven’t been taught his full message in their middle and high school history classes.
It’s hard to imagine how King would react to this blatant twisting of his words. But it certainly seems to go against what he preached.
Correction: Ram trucks are no longer affiliated with Dodge, as this post originally suggested.