By on February 6, 2018

Image: FCA

Far be it for us to suggest ulterior motives in an automaker’s marketing strategy (!). Unless you’re living in a primitive earthen hut with no electricity and using a rocky coastline as a latrine, you’ve no doubt heard of the hubbub surrounding Ram’s Super Bowl ad, which placed images of hard-working Americans alongside the words of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Oh, and there was a 2019 Ram 1500 in there, too, working hard, as Rams are known to do.

By the time a dejected Tom Brady flew out of Minneapolis in his fashionable dress coat, collar popped, Fiat Chrysler’s “Built to Serve” ad had the Twitterati spinning on the floor, foaming at the mouth. A controversy was born. But is this a rare example of the target of online scorn…winning?

Viewers of the commercial heard Dr. King’s powerful voice informing his February 4, 1968 audience that “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” Serving your community, your neighbors, brothers, and sisters, was at the core of Dr. King’s messaging; the man wanted unity and a tearing down of the divides — social, racial, financial — that separate a population and breed resentment, hatred, and inequality.

The ad aired on the 50th anniversary of his speech, and it aired on a day that, in theory, is supposed to unite all Americans. The only problem was, it was a freakin’ ad. A method of selling a product.

We live in a world where the Canadian Prime Minister chastises a young woman at a televised town hall gathering for using the sexist term “mankind.” We’re far down the rabbit hole of sensitivity here, so it’s hard to imagine an office so cocooned from the realities of 2018 that executives didn’t think this ad would spark controversy. Well, motives or lack thereof aside, the ad cleaned up.

According to Bloomberg, the ad was easily among the most successful of the night, at least by the weird yardstick against which all advertisements are measured. Eric Smallwood of Apex Marketing claimed the Twitter backlash against Ram and FCA was good for $7 million dollars’ worth of publicity. TV and YouTube exposure cranked up the value even higher.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, claimed FCA knew exactly what it was doing.

“To think for a second that they didn’t know it was going to be controversial would be crazy,” he said. “They didn’t just willy-nilly put this out there.”

Critics of the ad slammed the blatant commercialization of Dr. King’s words. Hot takes cropped up the following day, with outlets pointing out, correctly, that King was no fan of rampant capitalism. (Not pointed out by edgier outlets was the fact King also railed against the dehumanizing, anti-individual elements of communism.) Ironically, his talks specifically warned against judging one’s success by the size of one’s automobile.

In the ad’s wake, FCA dealt with what seemed like an approaching PR tsunami with a brief statement. “We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way,” the automaker said.

The King Center issued a tweet stating that neither it or Bernice King, MLK’s daughter and King Center CEO, are the entity that approves use of King’s words or imagery for use in marketing or entertainment. The center, like many other observers, misidentified the truck as  Dodge model.

With the controversy now more or less at an end (two Vice staffers talking to each other is the most recent Google News hit), it looks like FCA weathered the storm just fine. Will other automakers, and maybe even FCA, misjudge their audience in the future and live to regret it? Without a doubt.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

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65 Comments on “MLK Ram Commercial Cleans Up, Controversy Be Damned...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Irony would be if the MAGA crowd goes out and starts buying RAMs because so called “snowflakes” were triggered by the commercial.

    I’m reminded of the old adage “If you are looking to be offended, you probably will.” (That goes for both liberals and conservatives.)

  • avatar
    stingray65

    No doubt FCA tested this ad many times before it aired and given the price of Super Bowl spots I’m sure the testing showed it to be liked and effective on the target audiences. On the other hand, I am certain the critics of the ad are not the target audience – they would almost certainly rather take a bullet than be caught driving a deplorable pickup.

    • 0 avatar
      IHateCars

      “On the other hand, I am certain the critics of the ad are not the target audience – they would almost certainly rather take a bullet than be caught driving a deplorable pickup.”

      Not really….I would be part of the target audience as I have/had pick ups and I honestly thought that the ad was a little too pandering/syrupy.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      I agree that one’s outrage in the use of MLK’s voice most likely exists in inverse proportion to one’s inclination to be in the market for a Ram. Therefore, FCA gambled little on the outrage front. However, FCA was gambling that MLK’s voice alone would not be a turn off for the intended audience. It looks like they may have won that bet.

  • avatar
    IHateCars

    “The King Center issued a tweet stating that neither it or Bernice King, MLK’s daughter and King Center CEO, are the entity that approves use of King’s words or imagery for use in marketing or entertainment.”

    If they don’t, I wonder who does approve MLK’s imagery/word use in ads?

    • 0 avatar
      mzr

      Intellectual Properties Management, of which Dexter Scott King is CEO. Bernice King doesn’t have a say.

    • 0 avatar
      Fred

      MLK’s oldest son, Dexter Scott King, the CEO of the for-profit Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. He is legal fights with the rest of the family and civil rights groups. Sad, as King was an anti-captilist.

    • 0 avatar
      Caboose

      Intellectual Properties Management is the firm that licenses MLK’s work for publication. Filings with the state of Georgia for a business called Intellectual Properties Management list a “B.A. King” as secretary of a business, matching the initials of Bernice Albertine King. Its listed CFO and CEO is “D.S. King,” matching Dexter Scott King, the activist’s second son. A 2013 registration lists of both of their full names.

      From the USA Today article:
      “Ironically, in King’s full speech, he goes on to lament seeing people purchasing cars outside their means, mentioning Chrysler by name.

      ‘Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income?’ King said. ‘You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.\'”

      Also ironically, the same descendants of the great man who decry the use of his image and voice to sell product…themselves make their bread by selling his image and voice.

  • avatar
    kamiller42

    It was an ad selling an idea with Ram trucks being used to execute on the idea. Not that different from the Paul Harvey/farmer ad. (And the farmers and Harvey fans raised their pitchforks in anger! ;-) )

    The race hustlers help fuel a controversy where none needed to exist. It was a good ad.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Thumbs up, kamiller.

    • 0 avatar
      EquipmentJunkie

      I found the ad to be very powerful…just like the Paul Harvey ad was a few years earlier. King’s words on service are so true. I turned to my friend and said, “I’ve always wondered how different America would be today if King had not been assassinated.”
      King’s words dovetailed with the sermon I heard on Sunday morning…I got goosebumps watching the ad.

    • 0 avatar
      klossfam

      Agreed. I thought it was a powerful ad with a good chance for people to hear the words of MLK that still ring true today. Plus, the new RAMs are AWESOME!

      The RAM/Viking ad was also excellent…

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Well, whatever the faults of the ad, at least you could tell it was advertising cars. Commercials where you can’t tell until the tagline at the end what on earth it is they are trying to sell you (because it does not, in any way, feature the product at hand) are really annoying/useless.

  • avatar
    FOG

    I saw the ad. It was freakin awesome! Only imbeciles would be offended by it. When will people get over their belligerent bigotry. It was honorable and impressive. Sadly people have disengaged their brains and turned on their hatred because they didn’t get what they wanted in November. Sad to think that these people believe they are being wise. We are truly in trouble.

  • avatar
    mzr

    The really dumb part about it the ad, is MLK railed against consumerism. In the exact speech the ad quotes, he says this:
    “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. … I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. … I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America.”

    Like when using “Sixteen Tons” in a GE ad about coal.

    Marketing people are really idiots, and also can’t read.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      People also usually think “Born in the USA” is patriotic and that “Only the Good Die Young” is about good people that died young.

      • 0 avatar
        Willyam

        So true. “American Woman” at bars, “I’ll be Watching You” at weddings, “The One I Love” (R.E.M.) dedications, so many songs completely misunderstood.

        Speaking of which…how did the entire “Eminence Front” mess turn out for GMC?

    • 0 avatar
      kamiller42

      If you think Ram was telling people to buy their truck to keep with with the Jones or live beyond your means, then I think you missed the point of the commercial.

      • 0 avatar
        Maymar

        Someone made sure though that it was the shiny chromed trucks that got linked to the feel good message. Does FCA have an actual commitment to doing good, or do they just want to use the feels to make you spend $50k when a rubber floor fleet special is just as capable of aiding in volunteer work?

  • avatar
    LUNDQIK

    Democrat, Hilary voter, New England Liberal, …pickup truck owner here. I dug the ad. Felt a little on the nose at first, but the imagery (dear lord that new Ram looks awesome) and speech were good. Overall it was a nice message, that happened to include a truck. Much better than the Audi soap box racer ad from last Super Bowl… which seemed to get praise for making fun of rednecks.

    P.S. I lean democratic, but I can’t stand either extreme of both parties.

  • avatar
    Weltron

    I must admit, I’m kinda indifferent about the ad. What humored me the most though, was how many people were still calling them “Dodge” Rams. I guess I’m just a bit of a luddite, and hate how they just call them “Rams” now.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Clearly their re-brand isn’t working since people keep calling them Dodge. Like I will because this whole RAM thing is silly. Guess their ad people need to get back to work.

      Oh and the ad with the Vikings for Dodge (sorry RAM!) was 100X better because I remembered it. This ad in comparison was forgotten immediately do the complete disconnect between Dr. King’s speech and vehicle sales (regardless of brand or kind).

      • 0 avatar
        Weltron

        People don’t connect with it, and it appears that Chrysler’s marketing team doesn’t know how to market it either. A while back, Dodge (oops!) Ram on their Facebook page put up a video of a guy’s 1994-95 Dodge Ram, and how it had reached something like 600,000 miles, or something high like that. The camera then did a close shot of the rams head logo, which clearly says “DODGE”. So it’s like they’re just reinforcing that it’s a Dodge.

    • 0 avatar
      IBx1

      And that split happened almost a decade ago. They’re still Dodges to me, too.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I didn’t much care for the ad myself, but if I was in charge of Ram marketing every commercial would consist of pulling out stumps, towing combine harvesters, drag racing Hondas, and driving through tornadoes. With Hank III or Kid Rock in the background.

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    It appears that it’s actually the B&B that got “triggered” now. Let’s do a quick content analysis of the comments so far:

    PrincipalDan: “If you are looking to be offended, you probably will.” Cause you know, who else can disagree but triggered snowflakes?

    Stingray65: the critics are sissies who would never drive pickups anyway.

    Kamiller: race hustlers are fueling a controversy here, not Ram.

    Vulpine: thumbs up for the most cliched of cliche arguments.

    FOG: if you have a problem with it, you must be an imbecile.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    Martin Luther King had a dream of a colorblind society where people’s race didn’t matter and so far, only white people have taken him up on it.

    Among white people, it’s socially-unacceptable to be openly racist, or to be a member of an explicitly pro-white racist group like the Klan or the Aryan Nations.

    White people bend over backwards to avoid doing what every other group regards as their birthright.

    Is that true for any other ethnic group?

    Is it socially-unacceptable among black people to hate whites, hispanics, asians, etc?

    Apparently not, if standup comedy is any indication.

    Will black people catch hell from their fellow blacks for being members of openly racist groups like BLM or the Nation of Islam?

    Nope. Not hardly.

    How about hispanics? Will they be shunned by “the community” for belonging to MECHa or La Raza?

    Not last I checked.

    If racism’s a bad thing, then it’s bad no matter WHO we’re talking about.

    You shouldn’t get a pass because you’re a member of an allegedly-victimized “community.”

    The solution is simple.

    Either NO ONE should be allowed to say certain types of things about any other ethnic groups.

    Or – if you believe in the concept of Freedom of Speech – EVERYBODY should have carte blanche to say whatever they want, supposed sensitivities be damned, and let the pieces fall where they may.

    • 0 avatar
      TW5

      Most minorities are not in La Raza or BLM or Black Panthers or anything else. While members may not be shunned by the community, the community isn’t really interested in what they are doing, either. Furthermore, the hesitance to shun racist minority groups is not related to poor decorum within minority communities, it’s related to the misapplication of justice.

      When the KKK or Aryan Nation intimidates people, there is virtually no limit to the methods and tactics employed by law enforcement to stop them. When MS-13 or drug cartels gun people down, our government plays spy games and sell them weapons as a method of surveilling their methods. When the Black Panthers intimidate people at the polls in Philly, Eric Holder does nothing. When special interest groups tell minority kids in VA that Confederate truck owners are going to run them over, or special interest groups tell black folks in Alabama that their vote is public record, Jeff Sessions has more important things to worry about.

      Racist minority groups are institutionally protected; therefore, standing up to them has a high cost. Ask Jeff Sessions. He was prohibited from serving as a federal judge when nominated by Reagan because he chose to prosecute voter fraud in Alabama’s Black Belt (Marion Three case). The costs of challenging racist minority groups is very high indeed. That is not a character fault of any community, unless you want to blame politicians and the media.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      Well thank God you two are here to tell us The Way Things Are.

      If only the world would just listen to you, we’d be all set. But we’re stupid, so we don’t recognize your confirmation bias as the prophetic wisdom that it surely is, and just continue to muddle along in darkness. Keep posting, though, this platform is working for you. Today a car blog, tomorrow the world!

  • avatar
    210delray

    The ad aside, what I found notable is that even 9 years after FCA ditched the “Dodge” make name in favor of “Ram,” people still refer to the vehicle as the “Dodge Ram.” FCA should take the hint.

    • 0 avatar
      Weltron

      BINGO! That should be the big message here. People still see them as “Dodge Trucks” or “Dodge Rams”. I didn’t like the rebrand back then, and apparently, people still don’t connect with it.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        I think there is more to it than that.

        I owned a ’96 2500 Cummins and it was easily the worse pickup truck I ever owned compared to the Chevies or Fords I have owned.

        Maybe some people had similar cruddy experiences with Dodge or RAM and will never connect with them again.

        • 0 avatar
          Weltron

          @HDC

          You do have a point there. In the family, there is a ’01 Ram 1500, that has had an easy 130k miles. That thing has more rust then any truck around, and the dash is cracked in a million pieces too. It’s a shame, because at one time, that was a really nice truck too.

          • 0 avatar
            highdesertcat

            After the ginormous success of the Daimler Chrysler 300, and Daimler Jeep Grand Cherokee (WK2), Sergio aimed for improvements in the RAM series of trucks to improve product and sales.

            While RAM was always a great-value work truck, it had been plagued with rust, suspension frailties, poor fit&finish, harsh ride, and interiors that truly sucked.

            My Cummins suffered from all those maladies, until the front suspension broke and collapsed. Yes, that really happened!

            These days, RAM interiors are among the best on the market, especially in the upper trims. Fit&finish is comparable to Ford and better than GM.

            Ride and handling have vastly improved with the redesigned suspensions and ball-joints, and the 5.7L HEMI with VVT is a smooth and powerful operator.

            Yet, RAM remains #3 on the sales totem pole because for Americans who feel compelled to Buy American, there is only one truck: the best-selling Ford F-series.

            I’ve had all three brands over my lifetime, but my fave 1/2-ton truck today remains the Tundra 5.7L, having owned both a 2011 and 2016. I had the rest……

            If I ever need a 3/4-ton, the F250 would be my choice. Especially with a Turbo-Diesel. Grunt galore.

            It’s more than different strokes for different folks. And I don’t know what Sergio can do to get more people interested in buying RAM.

            Wonderful Commercial but I don’t see people rushing to trade their F150s and Silverados for a RAM.

            Maybe still too much history and precedent on their brains.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Dr. King was more than ok with a humble Ford Falcon convertible. The 260 v8 had more than enough power and torque to avoid Jim Crow get to the mountaintop.

    https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/c_fit,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/p0s782xozqqufmn4zh1s.jpg

  • avatar
    TW5

    The commercial was excellent, and what has people losing their marbles is not cultural appropriation, but that an advertiser has chosen real virtue over fake virtue. Advertisers hate that, particularly car advertisers. Look at luxury car ads sometime. They sell vice and facile moral tropes as if they are the conductors of mankind’s (excuse me, personkind’s) race to the bottom.

    This is the second major appeal to virtue RAM has made during the Superbowl. First was God Made A Farmer by Paul Harvey. It emphasized the importance of hard work. Now RAM is emphasizing the notion that trucks are vehicles of community service. We pickup owners often lament this aspect because people are constantly asking for help or to borrow our vehicles, but RAM is arguing it should be embraced. This idea is thousand of years old, and it has been vetted by nearly all moral scholars of every culture and era.

    Only a snowflake would get triggered, and argue that corporations making appeals to virtue are corrupting the incorruptible anti-capitalist stance held by MLK Jr.

  • avatar
    Sceptic

    Does an average RAM buyer know or care who Martin Luther is?

  • avatar
    brn

    OK, this has been written about enough. Can we get some articles on the, even worse, “Buy a Hyundai and cure cancer” ads?

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Ttac has an article about the circumstances of a Ram commercial, but no mention of Elon Musk’s Space X’s successful launch today of an advanced rocket that put a Tesla Roadster into a solar orbit?

    Nope, no sign of editorial bias here.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      We get it. Elon is God. Except there is no God, so, um… Musk Powah!

      #beingrightwheneveryoneelseiswrong

      #singlehandedlysavingtheworldbylaunchingvaporwareintospace

      • 0 avatar
        healthy skeptic

        Actually, Mr. Taurus’ cynicsm has a point here. How much carbon was put into the atmosphere by launching that Roadster into space? Musk probably wiped out the lifetime environmental gains of a thousand of his cars with that stunt.

        I’m generally a fan of Tesla, but sheesh. Cool stunt? Perhaps. Necessary? Not really.

        • 0 avatar
          rpn453

          “How much carbon was put into the atmosphere by launching that Roadster into space?”

          About a half Jahre Viking’s worth ($90 million).

          But apparently that’s about 1/10th the cost of an equivalent NASA launch. So his company deserves some serious credit if the numbers are true and they’ve improved the efficiency of a space launch that much.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            I thought I’d catch some flak for my post, but it all went to healthy skeptic!

            So I’ll clarify anyway that, of course, it’s hyperbole to directly equate the development and use of a refined finished product with the base energy source.

            Throughout the many processes and levels between the two, a large percentage of that energy is siphoned off as taxes and profits at each level, along with employee wages.

            But it does directly describe the scale of the energy consumed in the project; both within the processes and as compensation for the human effort involved.

            It’s a big project. But for perspective, you could launch six rockets for the same cost as each of the major Formula 1 teams spend to develop and enter two cars in twenty races each year. So in the big picture, the test launch isn’t terribly wasteful, and they’ve got to test their equipment somehow. Given the uncertainty, it’s better to do it with a prop than an expensive satellite.

            I have nothing but respect for the things that Musk and his companies have accomplished. So far, they’ve mostly just consumed massive amounts of resources. But those resources are being invested in the development of technology that should prove to be beneficial in the future, regardless of whether his companies can stay solvent in the meantime.

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          @healthy skeptic: “I’m generally a fan of Tesla, but sheesh. Cool stunt? Perhaps. Necessary? Not really.”

          It was a required test for certification. Instead of the usual concrete block as dummy payload, they decided to do a bit of marketing and product placement. Even the spacesuit on the dummy was part of the certification for the suit.

          It’s advertising just like the RAM ad. Every news report is showing video of that Tesla in space. No CGI and no fictional characters – they actually shot the thing into space and took video. In the future, don’t be surprised if they shoot an ad with one of their cars being autonomously driven on the moon or mars. Cause guess what the first thing they drop in either place will be.

        • 0 avatar
          Vulpine

          @(un)Healthy Skeptic: If you think that launch’s sole purpose was to put a Roadster into space, then I pity you; that ship’s purpose ultimately is to put Americans back into space on American rockets, not Russian, Chinese, French or whomever’s. That ship is now the most powerful launch rocket in operation (yes, still less than the Saturn V but more powerful than anything else now in use.) The Roadster just served as part of a “mass simulator” which is usually just a big hunk of concrete hauled up on such test flights; it was never intended to carry a revenue payload on that flight.

          So your sarcasm about the environmental impact for a “stunt” is lost in reality; it was going to launch, Roadster or not.

  • avatar
    Jeremiah Mckenna

    Your choice of the words “chastise” and “sexist” are a little over the top. Did you do that on purpose, or simply because you don’t understand how to use a dictionary?

  • avatar
    Hoon Goon

    I am not qualified to comment on the perceived offensiveness of the advertisement in question.

    Why comment then, you say? Just to gloat that I watched zero minutes of Super Bowl or Super Bowl commercials. I washed my car earlier in the day and went for a great drive while everyone else was fixated in stuffing their faces, getting drunk, being advertised to, and living vicariously though overgrown men playing with balls.

    Can’t wait for next year. Traffic is great during Super Dupe Sunday. Enjoy the game!

  • avatar
    brucemcl

    History is written by the winners. The show, “Mad Men” was the history of the 1960’s as written by the winner of the cultural wars going on then. King’s words used in a super bowl ad is more confirmation of Madison Avenue’s victory.

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