Dodge has caused an uproar with their Super Bowl ad this year featuring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it’s only going to get worse for them now that the slain civil right leader’s daughter and official foundation have both publicly denounced the ad.
The one minute spot includes clips of a speech King gave on February 4, 1968, exactly fifty years ago today, about the value of serving each other, our families, and our communities. The ad ends with the slogan “BUILT TO SERVE,” and the Dodge Ram logo.
It’s a beautiful, powerful speech — as so many of his words were — but the juxtaposition of a call to service with a commercial trying to sell Dodge Ram trucks struck many as tacky, if not outright horrifying.
Reaction on social media was swift and almost universally negative.
Next year we’ll see Rosa Parks shilling for Uber: “convenient, but you still have to sit in the back.”
— Kashana (@kashanacauley) February 5, 2018
Scrolling through the replies to the tweet @RamTrucks posted with their ad, I found zero positive responses.
This is an awful, awful, awful look. If you wanted to run a PSA, you could've done it without making it a car ad. If you wanted to run a car ad, you could've done it without MLK.
— Leon Ovis (@thesadheight) February 5, 2018
Got it? 👍🏽
— Millennials for Bernie 🌹 (@Bernlennials) February 5, 2018
Worse for Dodge, Bernice King, King’s daughter, and The King Center, the foundation founded by King’s widow Coretta Scott King, both publicly denounced the ad and made it clear they had not approved the use of King’s image and voice.
Neither @TheKingCenter nor @BerniceKing is the entity that approves the use of #MLK’s words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight’s @Dodge #SuperBowl commercial.
— The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center (@TheKingCenter) February 5, 2018
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) February 5, 2018
It is not entirely clear how Dodge obtained rights to the speech. The King estate has been notoriously protective about the use of his image and speeches. As this Washington Post article noted last year, the King Center has defended the copyright of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the website includes instructions t0 contact their licensor to “obtain proper authorization for use of Dr. King’s works and intellectual property.”
Even if Dodge did obtain the proper legal licensing for the clips of King’s speech, not taking the extra step to get the approval of the family seems unwise. This backlash was not surprising, and the comments from King’s daughter and foundation are only going to add fuel to the fire.
So far, it does not appear that Dodge has responded to the controversy on any of their Twitter accounts (I checked @Dodge, @DodgeCares, @RamTrucks, and @RamCares).
UPDATE: According to Slate, Dodge did in fact go through the proper legal channels to get approval from the King estate’s licensor. A representative from Ram Trucks emailed Slate writer April Glaser to say that they had “worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals,” and that “[King] Estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process.”
Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, Inc., the “exclusive licensor” for King Estate, also provided this statement:
When Ram approached the King Estate with the idea of featuring Dr. King’s voice in a new “Built To Serve” commercial, we were pleasantly surprised at the existence of the Ram Nation volunteers and their efforts. We learned that as a volunteer group of Ram owners, they serve others through everything from natural disaster relief, to blood drives, to local community volunteer initiatives. Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances. We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others. Thus we decided to be a part of Ram’s “Built To Serve” Super Bowl program.
My original comment that the backlash was not surprising still stands.
The use of a deceased celebrity to sell a product has been controversial for years — even more so for someone like King, who was a civil rights leader and not some Hollywood star. Getting the technical legal approvals should have only been the first step in moving forward with this ad; Dodge should have also sought the family’s approval.
Or, better yet, decide not to use a dead man’s words to sell their trucks.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.