On Monday, the civil rights organization named after the Martin Luther King Jr. speech used in the universally reviled Dodge Super Bowl commercial noted a strange irony about the speech that was conveniently cut from the ad.
In an official statement, the Drum Major Institute pointed out that when King gave “the Drum Major Instinct” speech on February 4, 1968, a portion of the text was devoted to discussing the exploitive nature of advertisers.
“In this, one of the last sermons of his life, Dr. King talked about both the virtues and evils of the basically instinct all people possess to be ‘drum majors,’” writes the Institute’s co founder, William B. Wachtsl. ”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.”
The Dodge Ram commercial features an excerpt of King’s speech, set to the backdrop of hardworking Americans doing hard-working American things: operating a crane, rustling cattle, driving a truck through the mud.
A main message of the speech is that you should live the way you want to be remembered. For Dr. King, that meant a commitment to justice, peace and servant leadership.
A portion of “The Drum Major Instinct” discusses how advertising panders to our egos, with King specifically mentioning car advertising.
“In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey,” King says. “In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.”
In the speech, Dr. King warned against succumbing to the pressures of advertising, which he saw as a means of social control and a disruption to communal living. “Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of income?” he says. “You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t even earn enough to have a good Model-T Ford. But it feeds the repressed ego.”
The commercial, seen as utterly tone deaf, was quickly panned online. One YouTube user who noticed the hypocrisy edited the original ad so that the excerpt played from Dr. King’s speech is the one that explicitly criticizes advertising.
The ad was lambasted on Twitter Sunday as a disrespectful marketing maneuver. Many people, including George Wallace, pointed out the absurdity of using an MLK speech to sell trucks by making up quotes, or imagining other social justice-themed advertising campaigns.
Some pointed out the parallels to the ill-advised Pepsi ad that aired last year, featuring attractive people using soda to defuse tension between militarized police and happy protesters.
Others, like Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, dispensed with humor and called out Dodge for exploiting the legacy of Dr. King.
Some people pointed out the particular irony of airing this commercial during an NFL season where President Donald Trump criticized NFL players for protesting police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem, and while many think Colin Kaepernick has effectively been barred from the league because of his activism.
You can watch the original Dodge advertisement below.