MLK estate approved controversial Ram Super Bowl ad

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

A Super Bowl ad for the Ram pickup that used a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon to sell trucks is being widely panned on social media, but Fiat Chrysler Automobiles says it “worked closely” with his estate to develop the commercial.

The automaker has not said how much it might have paid to use a recording of King’s sermon as the backdrop for a 60-second collage of vignettes of American life — interspersed with shots of the new Ram 1500 pickup — that delivered a message of the greatness of service to others. Many Twitter users immediately condemned the company for using the fallen civil rights leader to sell trucks.

Fiat Chrysler approached Intellectual Properties Management — an Atlanta-based firm controlled by King family members that handles licensing for the estate — with an idea for a commercial focusing on “Ram Nation volunteers and their efforts,” Eric Tidwell, an attorney for IPM, said in a statement.

The King estate is well-known for asking for compensation to use King’s likeness or words. For instance, the foundation that built a monument to King in Washington nine years ago had to pay $800,000 to IMP for the rights to use his words and image in fund-raising materials to raise private money for the monument.

“When Ram approached the King Estate with the idea of featuring Dr. King’s voice in a new ‘Built to Serve’ commercial, we were pleasantly surprised at the existence of the Ram Nation volunteers and their efforts,” Tidwell said. “We learned that as a volunteer group of Ram owners, they serve others through everything from natural disaster relief, to blood drives, to local community volunteer initiatives. Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances. We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others. Thus we decided to be a part of Ram’s ‘Built to Serve’ Super Bowl program.”

While the commercial didn’t clearly identify anyone as a Ram volunteer, Tidwell’s statement echos what the automaker says. A statement released immediately after the commercial aired said the sermon supports “a core belief of the Ram Truck Brand, and Ram truck owners, that true greatness is achieved by helping others.”

“The Ram Truck Brand believes in Dr. King’s notion that ‘everybody can be great because everybody can serve,’ ” the statement continued, “and Ram owners demonstrate this commitment every day in lending helping hands to their families, friends and communities.”

In a later response to the backlash, Fiat Chrysler released another statement explaining the ad was meant to honor the 50th anniversary of the sermon known as “The Drum Major Instinct.”

“It is 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave such a tremendous speech about the value of service,” the company said in the statement. “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.”

But the Drum Major Institute, an organization focused on preserving and promoting King’s legacy, released a statement Monday criticizing the ad. The institute says it “in no way condones the use of Dr. King’s sermon” for the purpose of promoting a car brand.

“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,’ ” the institute said in the statement. “One of the specific evils Dr. King condemned was the exploitation of the drum major instinct by advertisers, particularly car advertisers.”

In that 1968 sermon, King describes advertisers as “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,” a transcript of the speech reads. “And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.”

Eric Schiffer, a marketing expert who runs California-based Reputation Management Consultants, says the estate’s approval of the ad should put an end to criticism.

“It was a beautifully positive message (broadcast) on Super Bowl Sunday at a time when America needs to come together more than ever,” Schiffer said. “The fact that the estate is ultra-conservative and runs MLK’s image with an iron fist, this should tell the critics to back off.”

But the King Center, a nonprofit founded by spouse Coretta Scott King, is distancing itself. A tweet from the center’s account during the game said neither it nor King’s only living daughter Bernice King can approve the commercial use of the civil rights leader’s words or imagery, “Including tonight’s @Dodge #SuperBowl commercial.” (Many outlets and Twitter users confused the Ram Trucks brand with the Dodge brand, which parted ways in 2009.)

Bernice King responded to a tweet asking if the King children approved the commercial with a succinct “No.” The King Center did not respond to a request for comment.

University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacci said Fiat Chrysler had to know the ad would be met with some backlash.

“They were earnest in terms of the message and I have to give them credit for that, but yes, it’s controversial and it’s going to continue to be controversial.

“Maybe that’s all they wanted to accomplish.”