Ram trucks misinterpret the meaning of Dr. King’s work in a tasteless Super Bowl ad that ignores the context of his speech.
Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest day of the year for advertisers. It seems like half the people who tune in to watch the game pay more attention during the breaks from the action than they do to the football itself. Businesses stake their reputations and future profits on the ads they unveil, shelling out five million dollars for a mere 30 second slot in between timeouts. Some of those brands — Tide, Doritos, Amazon — found great success and produced hilarious commercials that ended up going viral.
Others…not so much. There was one misfire in particular worth discussing. Need a hint as to which one? It starts with “Ram” and rhymes with, “sweet Jesus, that could not have been more tone-deaf.”
In case you didn’t watch the game or simply blocked all memory of it after the Patriots lost, the Ram Trucks ad featured an impassioned excerpt from a sermon given by Martin Luther King, Jr., 50 years ago to the day. In his evocative warble, Dr. King extols the virtuosity of service while music swells in the background and the screen is filled with dramatic shots of mostly white blue-collar workers and pickup trucks. The message is…that Ram exists to serve its customers? That they’re giving back to people who live their lives for others by selling crew cabs? Your guess is as good as mine and that sort of ambiguity is the first problem with this ad, though it’s hardly the most significant. No, far worse is the utter hypocrisy and ignorance of King’s work that Ram is projecting by using his words to target a middle-aged, white, working-class demographic.
Now you might be thinking, “wasn’t there an article just last week in the Collegian that defended the borrowing of cultural icons as a display of cross-racial unity?” And you would be right. But that is not quite the same issue that is at play here, and it shouldn’t be defended as such. I have no problem with white people listening to, learning from or using the words of MLK, who believed in the equality and eventual unity of races.
There are, however, certain folks out there who should probably think twice about relying on Dr. King to defend their own positions, since they simultaneously dilute or flat out ignore critical elements of his civil rights preaching. In particular, I’m thinking of those redneck football fans who vowed never to watch another NFL game after players knelt in defiance of racism during the national anthem, or even worse, suggested that those same players should face some sort of criminal penalty for it.
If you are so pathetically thin-skinned and fascistic that you would seek to ban a peaceful protest just because you disagree with its message, you’ve got no business adulating a man who built his career on civil disobedience in defiance of injustice. Obviously not everyone in the market for a Ram truck fits that description, but there is an undeniable overlap, many of whom are being targeted by this ad. They are a group of aging Gen Xers wearing rose-tinted glasses and saying things like, “that Martin Luther King, he was one of the good ones.”
This is not to say that the act of kneeling during the anthem is necessarily respectful, justified or even effective in combating bigotry. But regardless of my feelings or yours towards the pragmatism of this action, we have to recognize that it is being done largely in the tradition of the civil rights movements of the past. We should never assume that people like Dr. King were universally accepted in their day as wholly righteous arbiters of the “correct way” to protest, or that in 2018 they would outright condemn groups like Black Lives Matter just because they utilize slightly different methods. As for the charge towards the kneelers of anti-patriotism, it’s really not so different from many of the things that King said himself. In the very sermon that is quoted in the Ram commercial, he accuses the United States, despite his professed love for the country, of committing more war crimes than any other nation in history.
King was a contentious figure who knew that causing a ruckus was a necessity for instigating change, and he did not bat an eye when questioning the nobility or intentions of the military-industrial complex. Gun-toting, stars and stripes bleeding Republicans can kid themselves all they want by pretending that the last “good” civil rights leaders died in the ‘60s. It’s just so disingenuous and disrespectful to see a company play on this cognitive dissonance in their advertising.
I have one final note on why this was such a horrible commercial, just in case you think I’m reading too much into the racial implications of this (I allow the possibility, as it is something I have accused others of doing in the past). The main subject matter of the quoted sermon is something known as the “drum major instinct,” which is defined as a primal human need to seek accomplishment, distinction and recognition.
Dr. King maintains that Christ calls on us to use it, so long as it is harnessed towards true greatness; i.e. service to others. When left unchecked or in the hands of a less disciplined soul, this instinct generates greed and materialism. And you will never guess what King uses as an example of the drum major instinct working in all the wrong ways. That’s right, the commercial automobile industry! Really Ram, you could not have chosen a more ill-fitting soundbite. Next time, why not just show MLK in a white shirt and call it a Tide ad?