Dodge thought the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death would be a good time to use the civil rights icon’s words to sell pickup trucks.
Dodge aired a commercial for its Ram truck series during the second quarter of Sunday’s Super Bowl featuring a voiceover of an MLK speech. The beginning of the ad notes that King delivered the sermon—known as “The Drum Major Instinct”—on Feb. 4, 1968. It was one of the last speeches King ever delivered—he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The spot was widely panned on social media by viewers, who viewed it as a cynical attempt to co-opt King’s words.
The ad also caught the eye of The Drum Major Institute, an organization founded by King and William B. Wachtel.
The institute “in no way condones the use of Dr. King’s sermon for this purpose,” Wachtel said in a statement. “In this, one of the last sermons of his life, Dr. King talked about both the virtues and the evils of the basic instinct all people possess to be ‘drum majors.’ In a twist of irony, one of the specific evils Dr. King condemned was the exploitation of the drum major instinct by advertisers, particularly car advertisers.”
Indeed, King goes on in the very same speech quoted in the ad to denounce the deceptive nature of car commercials.
“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers,” King said. “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.”
“We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King's philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others,” a spokesman for King’s estate told the Washington Post.