The vast majority of Super Bowl ads on Sunday evening were apolitical, as they should be. But one ad seemed to draw ire from all sides of the aisle: an ad for Dodge Ram trucks, featuring a voice-over from Martin Luther King, Jr. The audio of MLK came from a February 4, 1968 speech:
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 only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
These words were juxtaposed with images of Americans serving other Americans; the ad then concluded “Built to Serve,” with the Dodge Ram logo. The only images of the truck come in the context of helping other people — the Ram pulling a house, the Ram being unloaded, etc.
Critics of the ad, however, have been vociferous. First, they criticize the notion of using King’s words to push car sales. Critics point out that in that same sermon, King warned against overconsumption:
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.
That’s fine. But that’s obviously not the message of the ad. The message of the ad is that meaningful lives are those led helping others, and that a Dodge Ram might be able to help you do that. Is that really so terrible?
Here’s another thought: perhaps it’s good that a major American company just spent tens of millions of dollars to broadcast audio of MLK talking about virtue. Capitalism isn’t evil, and it doesn’t promote selfishness — it promotes productivity and creativity. I didn’t see Vox.com taking out the cash to air an ad quoting King on service, did you?
Finally, critics suggest that it’s totally inappropriate to use King’s words in promotion of capitalism at a time when Black Lives Matter still march in the streets and when NFL players knelt for the anthem. That’s ridiculous. That wasn’t King’s style — King took hold of the flag and called on Americans to live up to its ideals. Promoting racial unity and King’s central message of goodness shouldn’t be bashed just because some players make the foolish public relations error of insulting cherished symbols of national unity for political purposes.
It’s a good thing when advertisers spread MLK’s message. End of story.