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This is how Martin Luther King Jr. really felt about advertising and capitalism.
For many Super Bowl watchers, the commercials have become the best part of the event, as advertisers bring all the bells and whistles to make every million they dropped count.
This wasn’t the case for Dodge, however, which misguidedly co-opted a speech from civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. to encourage viewers to enlist in the company’s “Built to Serve” volunteer program—right in the middle of Black History Month, no less.
The ad highlights King’s 1968 speech, “The Drum Major Instinct,” in which King spoke about the importance of serving one’s community with the skills you have. As King spoke, the commercial showed images of people serving their communities in a myriad of ways with the help of the Dodge Ram truck.
If viewers weren’t already familiar with the “Built to Serve” volunteer program, the commercial did an awful job mentioning it anywhere. Instead, the minute-long ad seemed to be capitalizing on King’s oration skills to sell patriotism and capitalism—two things King wasn’t all that wild about. King loudly protested the Vietnam War and argued the government spent too much money on the military. He actually suggested money be redirected to serve the poor in the U.S.
Viewers took note of the irony and voiced their distaste for the ad on Twitter. The King Center and King’s daughter, Bernice, also said on Twitter that they had nothing to do with the ad.
Neither @TheKingCenter nor @BerniceKing is the entity that approves the use of #MLK’s words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight’s @Dodge #SuperBowl commercial.
— The King Center (@TheKingCenter) February 5, 2018
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) February 5, 2018
I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t a fan of the MLK Dodge Ram commercial.
DO NOT use MLK and his practices, speeches or intentions during black history month to sell a truck. No the fuck y’all won’t.
— Holly Golightly✨ (@Bitch_youllGag) February 5, 2018
The Dodge ad with MLK was repulsive. It’s important to remember this is what corporations do. They digest progress and sell it back to us. 1/
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) February 5, 2018
According to Slate, Ava DuVernay couldn't use MLK's speeches in "Selma," yet the estate was fine with the use of his words to sell a #Dodge truck.
— Renee Graham (@reneeygraham) February 5, 2018
There was audible painful groaning at the Super Bowl party I’m at as everyone realized Dodge Ram was trying to profit off of an MLK speech
— Hunter Walker (@hunterw) February 5, 2018
— anna (@annaknutson03) February 5, 2018
What’s most ironic is that in the very same sermon, King also spoke about the dangers of advertising. That portion of the sermon said:
“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those 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. In order to be lovely or to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit.”
Current Affairs, a national magazine that focuses on political commentary, re-edited the commercial to highlight that section of the sermon instead.
Dodge Ram Trucks released a statement on Twitter that the King Estate—which is controlled by King’s son Dexter—approved the commercial because they felt the volunteer program embodied King’s commitment to serving others.
— RamTrucks (@RamTrucks) February 5, 2018
While it may be true that King would have approved of Americans serving their neighbors, he probably wouldn’t have insisted it be done from the inside of a $50,000 Dodge Ram truck. After all, he said in his speech—the portion aired in the commercial—that to serve, all you need is a “heart full of grace” and a “soul generated by love.”
Tess Cagle is a reporter who focuses on politics, lifestyle, and streaming entertainment. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman, Damn Joan, and Community Impact Newspaper. She’s also a portrait, events, and live music photographer in Central Texas.