Like any good, red-blooded American, I found myself watching the Super Bowl last Sunday night. In recent years, my favorite part about watching is the inevitable controversy caused by either the halftime show or one of the countless billion-dollar commercials peppered around five minute intervals of actual football. In 2014, there was the Coca-Cola ad that featured a multi-lingual rendition of the national anthem, and in 2017, there was a truckload of commercials taking aim at the new president of the United States. This year was no exception and Dodge Ram took me for a wild ride.
Midway through the evening, a Dodge Ram commercial aired. It featured the disembodied voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching about “greatness.” The commercial contained a sample of MLK Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct”, from Feb. 4, 1968. While images of flashy new pickup trucks cover the screen, MLK Jr.’s voice booms in the background:
“If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful.”
The commercial is inspiring to the rising upper middle class truck owner in all of us. Debates immediately sparked around the country whether this commercial was offensive or not. As a white man with no connection other than admiration for MLK Jr., it isn’t really my place to say. However, I can make a strong case as for why this ad was in poor taste and startlingly ironic in the worst way possible.
I imagine the folks at Dodge Ram had good intentions, or at least the best that a corporation looking to profit off of the words of a civil rights leader possibly could. If they had read the entire speech though, they’d know that MLK Jr. specifically criticized the detrimental effects of commercials, specifically car commercials, on the average and impressionable American.
The sermon speaks to “a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first…. “that makes “joiners”- people seeking “attention and recognition and importance” want to take part in things no matter the debilitating effect on their wallets.
Dr. King continues:
“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion.… 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.”
Dr. King addresses the hypocrisy of advertising and the classism inherent in it.
“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…. you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses…. 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.”
The irony of it all is that it would have been much easier to just sample the more well-known and more frequently sampled “I Have a Dream” speech. Now, this is not to suggest that the speech has lost its meaning. The “I Have a Dream” speech is a powerful example of the gravitas that Dr. King brought to speeches and sermons; it’s a perfect example of the strength of his voice and his character. Unfortunately, as time has passed, it has become easier to cherry-pick Dr. King’s speeches and eliminate context to force him into whatever persona fits their narrative.
Every year, we celebrate MLK Jr. Day by staying on the inoffensive surface of MLK Jr.’s politics. Banks and post offices are closed, mattress stores are having close out sales and the “I Have a Dream” speech plays on television across the country. Everyone’s Facebook walls – yes, even your grandparents with the uncomfortably racist streak – are covered in quotes from Dr. King that highlight the facets of his character that the media and the government have spent decades playing up. Here is an excerpt from MLK Jr.’s 1968 work, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?”:
“Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence? Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth, and intervened recklessly in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order?”
MLK Jr. was a radical. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that. MLK Jr. was against the Vietnam War, skeptical of American capitalism, and very critical of the government. The FBI surveilled and threatened him, culminating their smear campaign with a note demanding his suicide. The author of the note stated that they knew of MLK Jr.’s affair, and that they would expose him if he did not kill himself. Unsurprisingly, it is in the government’s best interest to do a complete reversal in their feelings towards King, because the government was on the wrong side of history.
The government is not the only entity at work here. It is not a surprise that a person would be unaware of King’s more radical leanings. The 1999 court case, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., went after USA Today for publishing an article containing the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety without approaching the estate. The decision of the case was that speeches given to the general public were still intellectual property. The Martin Luther King Jr. Estate, operated by two of Dr. King’s sons, Dexter Scott King and Martin Luther King III, controls all of the rights to his speeches. And the estate has made some questionable moves in the past with these rights. For example, refusing to let director Ava DuVernay use speeches by MLK Jr. in her 2014 MLK Jr. biopic, Selma. At the time, the King estate had licensed the film rights to Steven Spielberg for use in his own King biopic that has yet to be produced.
The King Estate confirmed following the ad that they licensed the use of the “Drum Major Instinct” speech for use in the commercial. Following the ad, King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, immediately distanced herself and the King Center, the nonprofit started by Coretta Scott King, from the ad on twitter.
With total control over the pop culture presence of their father, the King Estate controls the public perception of their father; the presence of Dr. King in the culture is his real legacy. For better or for worse, the King Estate has been instrumental in constructing a more benign persona for MLK Jr. By controlling his presence in the media, they control his public image.
America’s relationship with Dr. King was on full display during the Super Bowl. While he spoke, the audience was treated to a slideshow of farmers, firemen, military men, teachers and others. It was a questionable choice to use the voice of Dr. King, especially this sermon, and in poor taste given the racial tensions in the United States today. I’m sure the goal – other than selling more trucks – was something like showing how Dr. King’s words transcend race, and that anyone can aspire to own a Dodge Ram. But in the day and age of things like the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad (the one where Kendall Jenner ends racism by distributing Pepsi at a Black Lives Matter rally), Dodge’s tone deaf, color-blind approach to race relations in America is a little out of place in 2018. The words of Dr. King, when used appropriately, can shine a light on the racial tension that still pervades American life. His words carried just as much weight in the 50s and 60s as they do today. But to use him as a tool to sell vehicles is disgraceful at best and revisionist history at worst. Dr. King has endured the full circle of life in American pop culture. From dangerous subversive, to Civil Rights leader, to martyr for change, to a narration on a truck commercial. Dr. King’s legacy will never be forgotten, but one has to ask: How will that legacy continue to change? Is the end result of his work becoming a posthumous corporate cheerleader for truck companies?