On Super Bowl Sunday, Ram Aired a Shameless MLK Ad …

Super Bowl Sunday, Ram, ad, Martin Luther King, shameless ad

A couple of years ago, I complained about TV commercials, particularly those that aired on Super Bowl Sunday. Well, tonight, I’d like to add a complaint about one ad that on Super Bowl Sunday aired this year.

Last night (February 4, 2018), Ram aired a pretty shameless ad which used audio from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In response, a YouTube user decided to replace the audio with another MLK speech in which the civil rights leader excoriated capitalism.

This situation reminded me of what I started looking into last month. As it turns out, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a different person than many people who talk about him want the rest of us to believe. While much of what we learned about him is true, it is used to hide the fact that he became a democratic socialist by the end of his life and was highly critical of capitalism as well as U.S. domestic and foreign policies.

This of course ties into the Ram ad and why the truck company’s decision to use MLK audio is ironic and sad.

Ram’s Ad

This is the ad that the Ram showed on Feb. 4:

Here is the quote Ram used in its Super Bowl commercial:

If you want to be important—wonderful. 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 a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Where the Quote Comes From

On February 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave what was called “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon, one that was inspired by “Drum-Major Instincts,” a 1952 homily by J. Wallace Hamilton. In his sermon, King talked about human nature in terms of people feeling the need to feel important and gain more attention for themselves. Some outgrowths of the Drum Major Instinct were people living above their means and becoming snobs in order to keep up with the Joneses and feel superior, respectively.

Near the end of his speech, King told his congregation that the most important thing they could do was serve and do so honestly and with open hearts. He also said he had imagined his own funeral and said they those reading his eulogy should only stress the good thing he did and tried to do to serve others. His awards were not important in the scheme of things.

The Irony Here

As you can see, Ram’s use of an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon was completely ironic. While it was understandable that Ram wanted to use a positive message about serving the general public to inspire people to purchase their trucks, it is blunted by the occasion. It was undermined by the fact that Ram put down top dollar to have its add seen on Super Bowl Sunday, which signifies extravagance and many of the things King spoke against.

In particular:

MLK was openly anti-capitalist near the end of his life. In fact, King had a strong message against what Ram was doing in the very same speech the truck company pulled the excerpt from (Garcia).A big part of King’s speech was when he decried commercialization and how vendors feed into people’s desire for status. He specifically called out brand names like Chrysler. (Fiat Chrysler owns Ram.)

Another irony of the Ram commercial involves the NFL. (A while back, I started a series of posts that dealt with NFL protests.) As many of us will remember, the topic of those protests exploded after Donald Trump used his bully pulpit to start a war of words with (black) NFL players and to say what they were doing was “unpatriotic.” The fact remains that MLK was widely hated when he was alive because the Civil Rights Movement ruffled the feathers of the powerful and segregationists.

The Video Response

In a response to Ram’s 2018 Super Bowl commercial, Nathan Robinson took the footage from the original ad and replaced the audio with another part of the same speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. used by Ram.

These are the words used:

Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are ‘joiners.’ You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression. So you get your groups, and they become the ‘Grand Patron,’ and the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the ‘Most Worthy of the Most Worthy’ of something. It is the drum major impulse and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.

Now, the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they 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. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.

The Response to the Video Response?

Shortly, the video response was taken down due to a DCMA claim. However, it looks like that video is still up (at least for the time being). I will leave a screenshot of the thumbnail just in case.

Super Bowl Sunday, Ram, ad, Martin Luther King, shameless ad

The video might not exactly be safe because even if fair use applies for the use of the Ram footage, the family of Dr. King might catch wind of Robinson’s video, if they haven’t already. In that case, they may have a problem with the use of MLK audio if it wasn’t cleared with them.

Apparently, Ram got the OK to use the audio from at least one of MLK’s relative: Martin Luther King III.

Why This Is an Issue

As I found out, there is an issue about the use of Martin Luther King’s speeches. Not all are available for public use. Yes, a number of King’s speeches, including the text and the audio/visual, is tightly controlled by King’s estate.

While Ram is getting criticized now (and rightfully so), the fact of the matter is King’s family has made money off his image. In many cases, the text of the speech and certainly the audio are licensed to companies or individuals for public or commercial use (Garcia).


  • In 1999, Apple used MLK in their “Think Different” campaign (Farhi).
  • In 2001, Alcatel, a large French telecom, and Cingular, the company formed by the merger of BellSouth Corp. and SBC Communications, used King to sell their products. The ads drew criticism from people who felt that King’s image was being cheapened but both ads were approved by King’s estate, which was run by his family (Adweek).
  • In 2010, King’s image was used to sell the Mercedes SLS AMG coupe (Farhi).

Another Effect of Licensing MLK’s Image

The problems with the use of King’s speeches can be seen in the cases of “Selma,” the 2014 drama based on part of the Civil Rights movement, and other films where historians want to honor King’s legacy. Some people who made documentaries had to remove parts with footage of King once their license expired or they had to pay fees for unauthorized usage (Williams). The makers of “Selma” had to either paraphrase some of King’s speeches or write around them. By comparison, the upcoming MLK biopic by Steven Spielberg has rights to use King’s speeches (Garcia).

Works Cited

Adweek Staff. “Ads Cheapens King Image: Critics.” Adweek. 30 Mar 2011. Web. <http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising/ads-cheapens-king-image-critics-47854>.

“alcatel – martin luther king jr.” Tv spots and commercials. Added 3 Oct 2011. Video. <http://www.tvspots.tv/video/25902>.

“The Drum Major Instinct.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Stanford University. Web. Retrieved 5 Feb 2018. <http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/>.

Farhi, Paul. “Mercedes tries to use Martin Luther King’s image to drive car sales.” The Washington Post. 29 Sept 2010. Archived Article. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09%2F28%2FAR2010092801759.html>.

Garcia, Michelle. “Ram uses Martin Luther King’s anticapitalist sermon to sell pickup trucks.” Vox. 5 Feb 2018. Web. <https://www.vox.com/2018/2/4/16972220/martin-luther-king-dodge-ram-super-bowl-ad>.

Nathan Robinson. “What Martin Luther King Actually Thought About Car Commercials.” YouTube. 4 Feb 2018. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_v1h6Zoi-Q>.

Ram Trucks. “Official Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial | Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. | Built to Serve.” YouTube. 4 Feb 2018. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlbY1tGARUA>.

Williams, Lauren. “I Have a Copyright: The Problem With MLK’s Speech.” Mother Jones. 23 Aug 2013. Web. <https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/08/mlk-intellectual-property-problems/>.


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