MLK Ram Commercial Cleans Up, Controversy Be Damned

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
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mlk ram commercial cleans up controversy be damned

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]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Hoon Goon Hoon Goon on Feb 07, 2018

    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!

  • Brucemcl Brucemcl on Feb 07, 2018

    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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