Truck ad with MLK’s voice draws criticism

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

A sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. is the soundtrack for a Ram pickup commercial that aired during Sunday night’s Super Bowl. And on social media, the ad immediately drew criticism from those objecting to using the civil rights leader’s words to sell trucks.

The sermon, delivered exactly 50 years ago, calls on people to serve.

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve,” King’s voice intones over a 60-second spot with vignettes of American life — a classroom of children, a father teaching his daughter to chop wood, a firefighter carrying a child over his shoulder, a soldier reunited with family.

“You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve,” King instructs in the sermon known as “The Drum Major Instinct.” “You don’t have to know Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermal Dynamics in Physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

The commercial ends with the words “Built to Serve” superimposed on a black screen with the Ram logo. It features the 2019 Ram 1500, which debuted at the Detroit auto show last month.

“If you thought that MLK/Dodge commercial was bad, just wait until you see the upcoming Carl’s Jr. ad starring Gandhi,” one Twitter user said.

“Not sure MLK’s dream was to drive a Dodge Ram,” another said.

“What’s next? JFK hawking Cheetos?” still another asked.

One meme showed a photograph of a boardroom filled with white men as those responsible for approving the ad.

But it did have its defenders: “In this day and age, any use of an MLK speech is an overt political act, and Dodge decided attach their name to a martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. I can't hate that. Cannot,” one Twitter user concluded.

In a statement posted after the game, Fiat Chrysler said the ad was intended to “celebrate” King’s words and honor the 50th anniversary of the sermon.

“Ram was honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually,” the automaker said in the statement. “We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way.”

The commercial appears to have only moderately heightened interest in the truck., which tracked traffic to make and model pages on its website during the game, saw an 11 percent hike in traffic for the Ram 1500 during the game. That was muted compared to web traffic increases for the Jeep Wrangler, Kia Stinger and Lexus LS, which respectively saw 93 percent, 1,052 percent and 1,080 percent hikes in visitor traffic.

The tone of the commercial, which aired just before the end of the second quarter, followed the footsteps of Eminem’s “Imported from Detroit” and Clint Eastwood’s “It’s Halftime in America,” previous Super Bowl ads from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that are remembered more for their tone and message than the product they were selling.

A commercial like this is known as a “manifesto.” At least that’s what viewers heard from Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep brand in the fourth quarter, when it aired its Wrangler “Anti-Manifesto” spot.

“How may car ads have you seen with grandiose speeches over the years; making claims to some over-arching human truth? Companies call them ‘manifestos,’” the narrator says as a red Wrangler powers through a stream and up a rock face.

“There’s your manifesto,” the narrator says as the Wrangler Rubicon drives off.

The automaker kicked off its five-commercial march through the Super Bowl with a Ram pickup commercial called “Icelandic Vikings | We Will Rock You.” It’s a send-up of this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis but was filmed in the icy waters of Iceland to ensure authenticity, Fiat Chrysler said.

Jeep had two other commercials during the game, the most memorable of which was “Jurassic Park” star Goldblum’s 60-second ride in yet another Wrangler.

The commercial opens with scenes from the original Steven Spielberg blockbuster from the 1990s. Goldblum’s “Jurassic Park” scenes suddenly transition to present day, when the actor is again outrunning a T. rex in the 2018 Wrangler.

The commercial is directed by “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow, who is directing the next re-boot called “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” That movie hits theaters in June.

Jeep also featured its new 2019 Cherokee with a spot called “The Road.” The commercial features overhead shots of roads all over the country, from city streets to country lanes, but when the Cherokee comes on the screen, it’s off-roading in a forest.

“The road always ends, and this is where some of our best stories begin,” the narrator says.

It’s not clear exactly how much the five-ad package during advertising’s biggest night set back the automaker, but the cost of a 30-second spot is climbing well over $5 million. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. did not buy ad time during the game.