Super Bowl Sunday, that time honored tradition of football, wings and the ever-anticipated commercials. Rarely has a Super Bowl gone by that has not seen some controversy, or at least some element that invoked the ire of viewers, whether it was player performance or behavior, ill-performed half-time shows or commercials that fell short of the mark. During this year’s Super Bowl, Dodge managed to garner itself a place among those advertisers who united many against their marketing campaign.
It began with the best of intentions. Dodge, like many companies, wanted to use the Super Bowl to market their products. They also wanted to use the opportunity to bring attention to their new #BuilttoServe campaign, highlighting Dodge’s self-service initiatives.
They approached Intellectual Properties Management (IPM), Inc. which is currently run by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s son Dexter and is the managing entity that controls all intellectual property and speeches of the late King. In collaboration with a IPM, Inc., Dodge’s marketing team created an ad featuring Ram trucks being used by various individuals committing acts of charity and kindness, including footage of firefighters, relief workers and teachers, all while an excerpt from King’s speech entitled “Drum Major Instinct” talks about the importance of service and selflessness.
The ad, which ran for 30 seconds and cost Dodge more than five million dollars to air, ended in a public relations fiasco for the company. Created to impart a positive image of the company’s volunteer efforts, it instead came across as a company trying to capitalize on a well-known historical figure while exploiting his inspirational message to do so. While the ad has had some supporters, it largely drew indignation across the board. It was even compared to the poorly-themed 2016 Pepsi ad last year that featured Kendall Jenner and was accused of appropriating actions of Black Lives Matter protesters and combining it with the ridiculous idea that a sip of Pepsi would pacify riot police.
Having read several articles and heard commentary on the ad, I decided to watch it for myself. After that, I decided to read King’s speech in its entirety. The speech is inspirational. The ad reminded me of most ads I’ve seen, created to stir up some emotional connection or response to a brand, and in today’s world, most companies seem to want to focus on their “good works” or what they are giving back to the community in addition to whatever service or product they want to convince consumers to purchase. Except for the use of King’s speech, the ad was largely unremarkable. This made me think that it was not the ad itself, or even its message that was such an issue for the public, but rather the use of King’s voice and words. Which begs the question: what about the use of that speech, of those man’s words, is so polarizing to us as a nation?
I do believe that some things should be sacrosanct, barred from being used as a tool to peddle wares. Had the speech been used to score a public service announcement about charitable works or ways to help your fellow man, I believe the response would have been quite different.
Espousing King’s message of acceptance, toleration, and service to your fellow man is one that should be repeated often and needs to be heard by today’s generations. In today’s tumultuous political and social climate, one where NFL players were criticized for taking a knee to protest police brutality, King’s message takes on a new and urgent meaning.
The use of speech with the blessing of only his son’s company, but not that of his daughter Bernice or The King Center, established by his wife Coretta Scott King, is another issue that has been called to notice. Additionally, King’s estate, run by the same son who gave permission to Dodge to use the excerpt, is notorious for legal action when it comes to the use of King’s speeches and is restrictive in granting usage requests. Even the film entitled “Selma,” about the King-led civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, did not use his speeches because they feared legal reprisal from King’s estate lawyers . This raises the issue of why IPM, Inc. gave Dodge the rights to use the speech and if the transaction was solely based on the amount of money Dodge was willing to pay to use it.
Allowing access to King’s message simply based on financial gain party, yet denying it to others without those means, is almost as reprehensible as using the words to sell a product.
Finally, there is irony in the fact that the audio sound bite Dodge used came from a speech advocating the evils of consumerism, manipulative advertising and people living beyond their means by purchasing homes and cars they could not afford. King goes so far as to specifically name Chrysler in his speech, saying, “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.”
One has to wonder if Dodge and its marketing department even read the speech before deciding to use a small part to suit their commercial needs. On top of agitating the public by using a beloved figure in an exploitational manner, Dodge raised questions about the intelligence of their marketing team in using a speech aimed at the evils of advertising and car companies.
I feel that Dodge was wrong in using King’s words–maybe not for the same reasons as everyone else. Using the speech was at the least laughably ironic and in bad taste; at worst, it was exploitation of a powerful social message for financial gain. King’s message should be heard, but in a context befitting its message, not layered over images of Ram trucks.