U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Words on Dodge’s MLK Super Bowl Ad.

It’s not just that Dodge used MLK’s speech to sell trucks, which is awful all on its own. But the words from his speech “The Drum Major Instinct” were used for an ad that was pro-military, nationalistic, and strikingly a-political in a time when football-particularly players on the Eagles like Malcom Jenkins- have been increasingly using their platform to discuss issues of race and social justice. Jenkins, for instance, recently made the news for giving Super Bowl tickets to Kempis Songster, a “juvenile lifer” recently released from S.C.I Graterford in Pennsylvania.

King had documented opposition to the Vietnam War in 1965, three years before he gave the speech that Dodge used in their ad. At the same time, Dodge was producing the M37, a vehicle used throughout the Vietnam War.

And in the same sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct”, King said “And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (Yeah) If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds. (Amen) They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.”

Dodge sampled a speech that went on to criticize war, nuclear weapons, and imperialism as it showed images of the military (among other “heroes,” many of them white) in a supposed attempt to connect to viewers during Black History Month.

Even beyond the commodification of Martin Luther King Jr’s memory and the insult to the many football players of color involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, this ad, ostensibly appealing to people sympathetic to firefighters, the military, and fishermen (?) sampled a sermon (based on a homily of the same name) to sell cars.

More than anything else, Dodge’s ad shows the ways in which King’s memory (and words) have strayed from his intention. Though Dodge’s ad was particularly tone deaf, claims of “racial harmony”, “peaceful” resistance, and respect have been used with reference to King in criticism of the National Anthem Protests.

You can see the ad here. http://www.businessinsider.com/dodge-ram-super-bowl-commercial-martin-luther-king-2018-2

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Holly, thank you for this post. The title card / caption with the white lettering against a black background to introduce the commercial got everyone’s attention in our living room — 50 years ago today — and of course the oratory was stirring. For the first few frames of the commercial, it wasn’t clear what the ad would be about, but as soon as I saw the grille of that Ram, I was, well, both incredulous and not surprised.

    Is that audio in the public domain? Did someone from the King family or the King foundation have to grant permission? I cannot imagine a sum of money that would be sufficient to turn MLK into a pitchman for pickup trucks, but it may be that Dodge was able to use the audio without paying for rights. In any case, it was jarring, and I’m glad you noted it.

    One thing we did note was that, except for the monster-under-the-bed ad, all the ads tonight were “uplifting” in some way — either calling for/depicting “unity across differences” or using light humor / inside jokes. Madison Avenue decided that viewers wanted optimism, hope and kindness. They were probably not wrong.

    One other ad stood out: The ad for “Blacture.” I didn’t know about it ahead of time, but here is a writeup from AdAge: Amid #TakeAKnee, Pras Buys Super Bowl Ad Promoting Black Culture.

    (As to the TurboTax ad…I expect many among the 4-9 year old demographic are going to have a hard time getting to sleep tonight, and many parents are going to have to get on their hands and knees and “check” under the bed to reassure worried children that the monster isn’t there. Somebody who has never been on check-for-monsters duty wrote that damn thing.)

    But, honestly, and more importantly, what was Dodge thinking?

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