I am not a big sports fan - I don't root for any particular teams, and most games never even cross my radar. But the one game I do make sure to watch every year is the Superbowl - not because I care a whit about football - but because I love the commercials. I love the hilarious ones, the heartfelt ones, the creative ones. The rest of the year I don't care about commercials (just like football), but when the advertisers are bringing their A game, it's really something to see.
Lately, it seems like every year there is a commercial that ends up being controversial, whether on purpose or accidentally. This year was no different, as my Facebook newsfeed started blowing up with reactions to the Dodge Ram commercial that used a Martin Luther King Jr. speech. If you haven't seen it yet, you can watch it here. Please watch it before contributing to the conversation.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the commercial yet, as I can see both sides of the situation. My initial gut reaction was appreciation of Dr. King's words, especially on the 50 year anniversary, and then feeling unnerved when it was made clear it was an ad for Dodge Ram. Below I will try to parse out both sides of the reactions as I have seen them.
The negative reaction to the commercial was swift. I saw people referring to it as tacky, crass, profane, disgusting, and asking if nothing was held sacred anymore. People questioned whether using Dr. King's words to sell trucks was honoring his legacy. They wondered who was making money on this deal and why - is it just because they wanted money? Or because they thought this might actually spread a good message? People were leaning towards the former.
Others pointed out where the words came from - Dr. King's sermon titled "The Drum Major Instinct". Later in the same message, he says this: "You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of five thousand dollars, your car shouldn't cost more than twenty-five hundred. That's just good economics. And if it's a family of two, and both members of the family make ten thousand dollars, they would have to make out with one car. That would be good economics, although it's often inconvenient. But so often, haven't you see people making five thousand dollars a year and driving a car that cost six thousand? And they wonder why their ends never meet. [laughter] That's a fact." (You can read the full sermon here.)
On the other hand....
Even as I saw the negative posts populating my feed, I saw others begin to defend it. One person pointed out that the demographic most likely to buy Dodge Ram trucks is also a demographic least likely to hear or listen to the words of Dr. King under normal circumstances. In this way, perhaps the use was good - getting his incredibly profound words about servanthood in front of people unlikely to hear it otherwise is surely a noble cause. Perhaps there were good intentions behind this ad - not intentions to exploit Dr. King's legacy for money, but intentions to spread his message far and wide - and how much farther and wider can you get in the United States than a Superbowl ad?
Another commenter pointed out that if we criticize corporations for this, how can they ever do anything good such as donate to charity, or try to share the words of someone profound and meaningful? Wouldn't anything they do to associate themselves with "good" automatically be seen as exploitation of that good? Do we really want companies to only be able to say "buy our truck" and not be able to spread a good message with it? Where do we draw the line between promotion of public good and self-promotion? Is intertwining the two always inappropriate?
Even after writing this post, I'm not entirely sure where I land on this topic. I can see both sides. Perhaps the ultimate question is, do intentions count for more than impact? Does the negative reaction automatically mean it failed even if the intentions were good?
I'm curious, dear readers, to know what you think!