Last Sunday, football fans from across the world gathered together to watch the Super Bowl LII. Among the highly anticipated advertisements played between game coverage was an ad promoting Ram Trucks.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s powerful voiceover, from his 1968 “Drum Major Instinct” sermon delivered 50 years ago, plays over a montage of scenes that display heroism, unity, and hard work: “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s the new definition of greatness.”
The advertisement features scenes of people saving a dog from a crumbling house, a firefighter picking up a small boy amidst a raging fire, and a shot of a mother’s pregnant belly. Every few seconds, clips showing off Ram’s new truck and its highly visible logo flash across the screen. The ad concludes with a black screen, reading simply, “Built to Serve,” above another silver Ram Trucks logo. This Ram Trucks ad uses a section of King’s sermon, in which he addresses the value of service, as a tactic to advertise their trucks. The way the ad exploits and decontextualizes King’s words, which had been intended to inspire and uplift, not to sell a product, is inappropriate.
Fifty years ago, King spoke these words in a fight for social justice. Last weekend, Ram Trucks used the same words to sell their product – a context not supported by the rest of his sermon.
In fact, in “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. King specifically attacks advertisers for whiskey, lipstick, perfume, and, of all things, cars. Ram’s use of his words, completely out of context of this sermon, in a car advertisement reveals a blatant disregard for Dr. King’s message in its entirety and disrespects both him and his work.
The fact that the ad was played during Black History Month also implies an intent on the part of the company to take advantage of the increased power of King during this month, considering his incredible importance to the black community. The words of social activists revered by the black community and many others should not be misinterpreted, nor their legacies misguided in order to do something so foreign to the pursuit of racial equality as sell trucks.
Unfortunately, this advertisement is not an isolated incident. It is indicative of an issue in America more prevalent than many may realize: the misuse of quotes, especially by important historical figures, or the taking advantage of a social movement to meet one’s own ends.
Another recent example of a corporation taking advantage of a social movement to push its product was Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad. The advertisement depicted Jenner joining a protest marching by a photoshoot she was taking part in, and, once the marchers met a police blockade, cooling tensions immediately by rushing forth from the crowd and handing an officer a can of Pepsi, leading the crowd behind her to erupt into cheers of celebration. This ad faced backlash for belittling the Black Lives Matter movement, and is an example of a corporation, this time backed by a celebrity, twisting a popular or relevant social movement to serve their own needs – whether it be to sell soda, trucks, or anything in between.
We must constantly be mindful of how we use the words and ideas of others, especially when those ideas hold the kind of significance to people that these sorts of movements do. It is imperative that we understand and respect the meaning of the phrases we repeat, rather than only using them when they are convenient or advantageous to us, without considering all their elements. When the meanings of historically important words, like King’s sermon, are warped or decontextualized, it meddles with the facts of history, and very harmful consequences can come from this. It can alter the meaning of the events surrounding the words, tells a one-sided narrative, and can propagate an inaccurate truth, simply by bringing that narrative into the public eye.
This editorial represents the views of The Phillipian, vol. CXLI.