With 2018 being the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, commemorations honoring the man will be taking place across the country. But who would think there would be a Super Bowl ad with a King voice-over to sell pickup trucks? The pitch for Dodge Ram trucks’ “Built to Serve” Volunteer Program did just that
and provoked a fast and furious backlash on Twitter and a rebuke from the King Center.
Adding insult to injury, the commercial’s narrative arc from beginning to end misappropriates MLK’s essential message in his 1968 speech, “The Drum Major Instinct.” The speech rails against materialism, using cars as a classic example.
“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,” King said in his sermon.
Black misrepresentation in commercial advertising, however, is not new. The exploitation of black talent and the objectification of black bodies and images to pad the pockets of profit-making corporations under the guise of helping underserved populations and communities is also not new.
For example, we all remember the 2017 Pepsi commercial fiasco starring Kendall Jenner. The ad preyed on racial and ethnic stereotypes in its attempt to promote the brand to a multicultural consumer base. Also, it misappropriated the iconic and viral photo of Ieshia Evans, the 28-year-old African-American mother who in 2016 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, La., stunned the nation as well as the world when she silently walked to the front line of heavily armed police and offered her hands to be arrested. Jenner, however, with the reenactment of the white hero/rescuer trope, thwarts a possible riot in the commercial simply by offering a white cop a Pepsi.
The Dodge Ram trucks commercial is not so egregious. Ram Nation Volunteer Program’s mission is “supposedly” not to sell their company's trucks but rather to highlight that “Ram Truck owners are a special breed” serving all of humanity “from disaster relief to blood drives or even just cutting a neighbor’s grass.” Its website uses MLK’s quote, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve” to bolster its claim. Though the ad was tone-deaf in mixing King’s speech with its product promotion of the Ram Nation Volunteer Program, it didn’t undermine Dodge's goal, and that’s to sell trucks.
The use of revered dead historical figures to pitch products has become a popular advertising strategy to instantly attract consumers' attention given their high level of recognition, even if there’s a backlash. In a 30- to 60-second television spot, like those on the heavily watched Super Bowl, revered dead historical figures make the sale for commercial products because their iconic stature in society and the story behind their images easily resonate with viewers. For example, the 2012 Red Bull commercial mocking Jesus’ miracle of walking on water received an outcry from Christians across the country, myself included. The energy drink maker dropped the ad immediately but its sales soared nonetheless.
While I find Dodge Ram truck commercial disrespectful and dangerous in this political era of fake news, alternative facts, and revisionist history, the commercialization of King suggests that the money that can be made from him is more important than his message. Sadly, the Ram Dodge Truck ad was not the first time King was repackaged to sell a product. In 2001, King’s world-renowned “I Have a Dream” speech was used in print and TV ads for Alcatel Americas, a telecommunications and networking equipment company. Alcatel wanted to co-opt the speech to give it a Forrest Gump-like spin. Can you imagine?
When it comes to pimping a profit from the King’s legacy, however, the dilemma is aided by King’s youngest son, Dexter. He treats his father’s speeches as commercial literary works, charging licensing fees for their use. Regrettably, Dexter runs the intellectual properties management arm of the King Center, which appears not to distinguish between commercializing King and communicating King to younger and wider audiences. Its aim is for revenue maximization, by any means that presents itself. This time it was the Dodge Ram truck ad.
REV. IRENE MONROE does a weekly Monday segment, “All Revved Up!” on Boston Public Radio and is a weekly Friday TV commentator on New England Channel NEWS. She’s a theologian and religion columnist.