Brands love to sell you stuff by tugging at your heartstrings, and certainly, you can see why a company might think it’s appropriate to use the famed “Drum Major Instinct” sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. gave just a few months before his assassination to sell, uh, Dodge Ram trucks. These trucks, just like MLK, were made in America! MLK had, in his lifetime, been inside of several moving vehicles! You can listen to an audio recording of MLK giving this very sermon while driving in a truck, if you wish! Using, I assume, that logic, Dodge ran the above ad during the Super Bowl on Sunday night. It did not go over well.
According to Slate, the MLK Estate did approve the ad, which is surprising considering how hard it is to get permission to use MLK’s speeches—as Slate points out, Ava DuVernay didn’t even use any of his speeches in Selma, and that was actually a movie about MLK. So it’s all the more jarring to hear one in a car commercial, not this isn’t the first time MLK’s likeness has been used to plug products. Brands love an inspirational quote!
Meanwhile, MLK’s daughter, Bernice King, seemed unaware that Dodge Ram planned to use her father’s sermon in their ad:
And the King Center, which Bernice King runs, also denied having approved the ad:
So it’s not clear who exactly gave the go-ahead, but what is clear is that the ad was deeply misguided, particularly since elsewhere in the Drum Major Instinct sermon King addressed the dangers of excess consumerism and advertising, including when it comes to buying and selling cars. Here’s an excerpt:
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. (Make it plain) 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. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it...
...But very seriously, it goes through life; the drum major instinct is real. (Yes) And you know what else it causes to happen? It often causes us to live above our means. (Make it plain) 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? (Amen) [laughter] You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. (Make it plain) But it feeds a repressed ego.
You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of five thousand dollars, your car shouldn’t cost more than about twenty-five hundred. That’s just good economics. And if it’s a family of two, and both members of the family make ten thousand dollars, they would have to make out with one car. That would be good economics, although it’s often inconvenient. 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. [laughter] That’s a fact.
So, Dodge Ram used an MLK speech warning people to stop spending so much money on cars...to sell cars. It’s inappropriate enough to use a dead civil rights icon to sell a product, but it seems extra uncouth to use that icon’s speech decrying the selling of a product to...sell...said...product. Ugh. My head hurts even thinking about it.
This year’s Super Bowl commercials seemed extra treacly, and though maybe corporations think that kind of thing appeals to people, particularly to #woke millennials, it’s pretty easy to tell when a brand’s feeding you a line (i.e., always!) Anyway, there was only one good ad tonight: