Distinguishing between commercializing and communicating MLK’s message
With 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, there will be commemorations honoring the man across the country. But who would have thought that among them, a Super Bowl ad with a King voiceover would be used to sell pickup trucks?
Of course, the pitch for Dodge Ram’s “Built To Serve” volunteer program provoked a fast and furious backlash on Twitter, as well as a rebuke from the Atlanta-based King Center. Adding insult to injury, the commercial’s narrative arc, from beginning to end, misappropriated the essential message of King’s 1968 speech, “The Drum Major Instinct.” For starters, the speech rails against materialism using cars as a classic example.
“Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income?” King said in his sermon. “You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford.”
There’s nothing new about black misrepresentation in commercial advertising. The exploitation of black talent, and the objectification of black bodies and images to pad the pockets of profit-making corporations under the guise of helping underserved populations and communities, is also not new.
For example, we all remember the 2017 Pepsi commercial fiasco starring Kendall Jenner. The ad preyed on racial and ethnic stereotypes in its attempt to expand the brand to a multicultural consumer base. Also, it misappropriated the iconic and viral photo of Ieshia Evans, the 28-year-old African American mother who, in 2016 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, stunned the nation and the world when she silently walked to the front line of heavily armed police and offered her hands to be arrested. Jenner, however, with her white hero/rescuer trope, thwarted a possible riot in the commercial simply by offering a white cop a Pepsi.
The Dodge truck commercial was less egregious. Ram Nation Volunteer Program’s mission is supposedly meant to highlight how its “Ram Truck owners are a special breed,” serving all of humanity “from disaster relief to blood drives or even just cutting a neighbor’s grass.” Its web page uses MLK’s quote “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve” to bolster its claim. The ad was tone-deaf in mixing King’s speech with a product promotion, but it didn’t undermine the company’s goal of selling trucks.
The use of revered dead historical figures to pitch products has become a popular advertising strategy. It instantly attracts the attention of consumers due to a high level of recognition (even if there is a backlash). In a 30- to 60-second television spot, especially during the Super Bowl, which draws a massive viewership, there’s no easier way to resonate with viewers. For example, the 2012 Red Bull commercial mocking Jesus’s miracle of walking on water received an outcry from Christians across the country, myself included. The energy drink maker dropped the ad immediately, but saw its sales soar nonetheless.
While I find the Dodge Ram truck commercial disrespectful, and even potentially dangerous in this political era of alternative facts and revisionist history, the commercialization of King also suggests that the money that can be made from King is more important than his message. Again, this is nothing new; in 2001, King’s world-renowned “I Have a Dream” speech was used in print and transit ads for Alcatel Americas, a telecommunications and networking equipment company.
When it comes to pimping a profit from the King’s legacy, it must be said that the dilemma is aided by King’s youngest son, Dexter. He treats his father’s speeches as commercial literary works, charging licensing fees for their use. Regrettably, Dexter runs the intellectual properties management arm of the King Center, which appears not to distinguish between commercializing King from communicating King to younger and wider audiences.
Its aim is for revenue maximization, by any means that presents itself. This time it was the Dodge Ram truck ad.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.