Selling public service or Rams? Firm defends Super Bowl spot

This file photo provided by Ram Truck Brand shows a scene from the company's Super Bowl spot. The Ram truck ad that used a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., is drawing a backlash. The ad shows people doing service-oriented tasks set against audio of King's speech, which urges people to be "great" by serving the greater good rather than being successful. But it was criticized by viewers and ad experts alike for forging too tenuous a connection with the civil rights hero. (Ram Truck Brand via AP, File)

DETROIT — In the 60-second spot aired during the Super Bowl, viewers see images of the rugged Ram pickup along with people working, helping others or hugging loved ones.

The images are set against audio of “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta exactly 50 years ago, in which he says that in order to be “great” and to serve the greater good, “you only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Missing from the Ram ad are the slain civil rights leader’s words in the same speech guarding against commercialism: “In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car … And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way advertisers do it.”

The irony is not lost on the throngs of critics who took to social media to question how Fiat Chrysler could use King’s sermon to sell trucks.

“It should have been used for something more important — the things that are going on in America now,” said Samantha Williams, 26, while visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta.

An FCA spokeswoman said the company intended to inspire people with King’s words that everyone can be great by serving others. FCA, she said, knows that Ram truck owners often volunteer to use trucks for charitable work, and the ad was intended to reinforce their service.

“It was selling the message of serving in your community, that was the message,” she said.

Unfortunately for FCA, not everyone got that message.

Chris Allieri, founder of the New York-based public relations agency Mulberry & Astor, said corporations often use the Super Bowl to showcase their corporate ethos — but Fiat Chrysler went too far.

“Let’s not fool ourselves … this is about branding and selling products,” Allieri said. “In an attempt to unite us, in increasingly divisive times, behind the words of a great American, it fell flat because it seems to co-opt and trivialize his monumental words to that of ad copy.”

Allieri said it was difficult for him to imagine any scenario where using King’s legacy to sell products would not cause a backlash.

“Dr. King’s words should never be confused with ad copy. To me it really misses the mark,” Allieri said. “If you are a marketer, using the words of Dr. King to sell your products is a hard no. There is no way I could see defending this.”

FCA’s spokeswoman said the company’s advertising agency approached the King estate to get licensing to use words from “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon and was referred to Intellectual Properties Management Inc., which manages King’s estate.

Both his estate and the management firm were involved in every step of the ad, she said.

“The message of our spot and the quotes that were used were all about service and serving,” the spokeswoman said. “That’s something the estate felt comfortable with granting permission for us to use.”