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Dodge Tastelessly Set a Car Commercial to One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sermons

The misapplication of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes is a cliche at this point: the practice of misrepresenting his mission as one of passive, loving, nice-ness rather than one of fighting against violence racial inequality becomes especially prevalent during Black History Month. We’ve seen officials and individuals speak about the bravery of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and MLK Jr. while spouting racist words at Colin Kaepernick and other activists carrying on the fight for civil rights.

When those watching the Super Bowl last night caught a Dodge Ram truck commercial set to MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon then, it makes sense that a lot of people weren’t happy. I get that lots of commercials, especially during this event, have a tendency to be overly intense by stressing a mission or branding identity. Sometimes it works, and other times it’s just laughable. However, to use MLK’s voice as an emotional accessory isn’t only outrageous—it’s incredibly inappropriate.

The video description reads, “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ram truck owners also believe in a life of serving others.” In continues, “They serve because they’re driven by a higher calling. They serve because they feel a shared responsibility and commitment to their family and community. They serve because they’re men and women of their word. They serve because they know the world could use a little more kindness.”

For those unfamiliar, King delivered this sermon in February 1968, two months before his death. This fact is especially powerful because he discusses how he imagines his funeral, eulogy, and legacy during the speech, emphasizing his service towards justice over his awards. King also explicitly addresses how vanity and consumerism are things to avoid, and encourages people to live within their means. “I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind,” he says of his memory, rejecting “snobbish exclusivism”. ”

“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”, he says of being a “joiner”:

Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are “joiners.” You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression. So you get your groups, and they become the “Grand Patron,” and the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the “Most Worthy of the Most Worthy” of something. It is the drum major impulse and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.

The soundbite used in the Ram Truck commercial, of course, excludes the part where he explicitly says not to buy expensive cars.

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.

But the clearest sign that this was a mistake? MLK’s daughter Bernice A. King and The King Center (the non-profit started by Coretta Scott King) telling you that it was a mistake.

Slate reported that it did receive approval, and shared a statement from the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management Inc. Eric D. Tidwell, who commented Ram Nation’s volunteer group which helps in “natural disaster relief, to blood drives, to local community volunteer initiatives…embodied Dr. King’s philosophy.” However, while the mission of the volunteers is commendable, taking an anticapitalist sermon to sell cars feels tasteless. Furthermore, the use of King’s voice, as Vox points out, ignores the current atmosphere in which King is treated as a “right” way to protest in order to discount the players who took a knee during the NFL season.

The best thing that can come from this advertising misstep is the same lesson that comes from every blunder like this: diversity your marketing team. If you’re thinking of using a beloved civil rights icon in your ad (which, let’s be honest, is usually not going to go over well), consult with the people of that estate. In reaction to this commercial, King is encouraging people to educate themselves about “Drum Major Instinct” and the true legacy of MLK.

(via Jezebel, image: screencap)

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