Though the Superbowl is a few weeks past, it is profitable to talk for a moment about a controversial advertisement premiered during the game. The spot in question was created by Ram, the automobile company, to promote a line of pickup trucks. Instead, the ad promoted passionate discussions over its voiceover material—a 1968 sermon by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., titled “The Drum Major Instinct.”
Ram’s selected portion of the sermon extolled greatness in service, reflecting the Christian teaching that the greatest person in the Kingdom of Heaven is the least on Earth. Charity and humility are open to everyone, no matter his or her external circumstances.
“If you want to be great—wonderful,” said King in the audio recording. “But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. …You don't have to have a college degree to serve. …You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
Ram used these lines (and others on the same topic) as a voiceover, playing them alongside clips of soldiers, charity workers, farmers, fishermen, and doctors serving others. Intermittently, the audience was shown a Ram truck, with the logo appearing at the end of the ad.
Many social media users and news outlets have expressed distaste at the spot. The New York Times and The Washington Post took note of the backlash on Twitter, and Stephen Colbert of The Late Show performed a monologue on the subject. Many sources pointed out the ad’s great irony—that the “Drum Major Instinct” sermon criticized caustic consumerism and indicted automobile advertisers in particular.
Said King in the same speech, “[Advertisers] 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. …That's the way the advertisers do it.”
According to King, this kind of advertising is part of a harmful mentality that has plagued men since the beginning of time. He calls it the “Drum Major Instinct”—the desire “to be important…to lead the parade.” This desire leads people to seek praise, chase attention, exclude those around them, and prioritize their own good before others’. Furthermore, the instinct is often more destructive to the prideful person than it is to those he envies.
In using King’s sermon, Ram capitalized on this same thirst for praise and superiority. King called advertisers “those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion,” but here, advertisers misused the words of another gentleman of massive persuasion—King himself, whose sermon was twisted for the purpose of boosting sales. Far from heeding King's warnings, Ram used “The Drum Major Instinct” to remind buyers of their “need” to keep up with the latest products.
Worse, perhaps, is the association of uncontrolled commercialism with acts of service. In Ram’s ad, even charity becomes something to sell—exactly the opposite of what charity is. The company capitalizes on the fact that humans desire to be good and to help one another. Doubtless, King would not have consented for his words to be used for this end.
Audiences may never know whether Ram’s choice of voiceover was due to deliberate out of context cherry-picking, or simply poor reading comprehension skills. Still, it remains a fascinatingly bad decision, and one that offers a glimpse of marketing gone wrong. When companies begin to peddle virtue, the public has ample cause to be suspicious.