Super Bowl LII: FCA Leads Auto Ads But Sparks Backlash

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Fiat Chrysler Automotive surprised with a record slate of five Big Game advertisements during Super Bowl LII, including a statement ad featuring the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. that proved controversial on Twitter.

Overall, there wasn’t as significant an auto-industry presence in Super Bowl advertising as in most recent years. And it was concentrated in the efforts of four brands, which also included Toyota, airing three commercials plus a Lexus spot; Hyundai, two commercials; and Kia (more on those ads below). So the lane was open for FCA to dominate Super Bowl automotive ad spending on behalf of its two prime brands, Ram and Jeep.

The pickup-truck brand, which will have a new version of the Ram 1500 later this year, got two spots and Jeep, which has become the company’s most dynamic brand, got three ads to tout new versions of its iconic Wrangler off-road icon and its Cherokee mid-size crossover.

The launches “represent the collective efforts of the men and women at FCA who instinctively recognize their responsibility to these authentic brands,” stated FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne in a press release. “These vehicles, and these commercials, reflect our continued commitment to each brand and serve as a validation to our actions to realign our industrial output in the United States to meet customer demand.”

The Ram Trucks-highlighting “Built To Serve” ad, which aired late in the second quarter, used audio of Dr. King’s last major address, “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon, which he gave on February 4, 1968—exactly 50 years ago, and exactly two months before he was assassinated in Memphis.

“We recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be the servant,” King’s voiceover states. This “means that everybody can be great,” he continues to deliver over scenes of a student, athletes, a teacher, a cowboy, fishermen and professional heroes including firemen, Marines, and a nurse. Ram Truck-drivers are shown pitching in, from helping at disaster sites to hauling a small wooden church down a highway in a salvage operation.

The ad aimed to invoke American heroism, and unlike some of the politically provocative ads during last year’s Super Bowl, invoke unity around the notion of service and being a good neighbor. As FCA puts it:

The Ram Truck brand believes in Dr. King’s notion that “everybody can be great because everybody can serve,” and Ram owners demonstrate this commitment every day in lending helping hands to their families, friends and communities. The spot is comprised of 26 powerful images of those serving others, with Dr. King’s commanding voice calling for all of us to serve.

Super Bowl viewers, however, took to Twitter and other social media platforms to object to Dr. King’s words being used to sell trucks. As TIME reported,

Viewers were taken aback. It didn’t take long for social media users to inquire whether King’s family approved of the company appropriating the civil rights leader’s words as a marketing tool. The late Reverend’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, took to Twitter with an unambiguous response:

While FCA and Ram parent Dodge had not worked with the King Family, TIME (citing Slate) pointed out that the automaker had worked closely with the King estate on the ad:

Dodge confirmed that the company “worked closely” with the Martin Luther King, Jr. estate, which manages use of King’s intellectual property, to obtain approval to use the speech, Slate reports. The estate is a separate entity from the King Center, the nonprofit established by the Reverend’s wife, Coretta Scott King. “Estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process,” a Dodge representative said.

“Built To Serve” joins FCA’s other Super Bowl big statements includes the “Imported From Detroit / Born of Fire” commercial in 2010 that featured a soaring gospel choir, Eminem, the City of Detroit at the beginning of its comeback—and a model, the Chrysler 200, that the company no longer produces; Clint Eastwood in “Halftime in America,” urging the nation on in its economic recovery; and Ram Trucks’ “Farmer,” which featured a voiceover by the late radio icon Paul Harvey in  an ode to American agriculture.

In its other Ram Trucks spot during the game, the company artfully tapped into the current cultural context, borrowing mythology from the Vikings of old and relevance from the Vikings of the NFL to pay homage (above) to the real star of the commercial: the coming, new 2019 Ram pickup truck.

In the second quarter, the 30-second “The Road” spot introduces the new 2019 Jeep Cherokee — “the most capable mid-size sport-utility vehicle — now boasting a new, authentic and more premium design, with superior on-road performance with unmatched Jeep 4×4 capability.”

The 60-second “Jurassic World” commercial in the third quarter paid homage to the iconic scene in Jurassic Park in which Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) escapes danger while in the back of a Jeep Wrangler — as he is being chased by a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex — in a nod to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opening on June 22.

In the fourth quarter, Jeep’s ‘Anti-Manifesto’ took a swipe at the endless automakers that make declarations or promises of what their brand or vehicles deliver, “A Manifesto.” The Jeep brand takes an approach that only it can unquestionably deliver while introducing the all-new 2018 Wrangler. The brand instead chooses to show the world that there is only one vehicle that needs no words to demonstrate the true meaning of “Manifesto.”

It was a curious spot for Jeep Wrangler, showing the vehicle traversing a pond and climbing up its rocky banks. “How many car ads have you seen with grandiose speeeches over the years …  big declarations, making claims to some overarching human truth? Companies call these commericals ‘manifestos.'”

Then, as the off-road-champion Wrangler makes it up and over the bank on the shore effortlessly, the voiceover concludes, “There’s your manifesto.” Anyone watching the entire Super Bowl including all the Ram and Jeep ads might fairly be left with the question: “Did the Ram marketers know what the Jeep people were doing, and vice versa?”

Other automakers took a different tack this Super Bowl. GM, Ford, Subaru and Honda all took a break this year, although Subaru spots pooped up during the Puppy Bowl marathon on Animal Planet.

Hyundai ran two spots, one during the pre-game show and one in the fourth quarter—the emotional “Hope Detector” (for every Hyundai purchased, a portion of proceeds benefit childhood cancer research) and “Ref to the Rescue,” about a special referee and his Hyundai Kona SUV:

Toyota-owned Lexus (promoting its Black Panther movie tie-in) and Kia (featuring Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler) each ran one spot:

Toyota‘s flagship brand ran three spots from two different campaigns in the first quarter, halftime and second half. Two spots were from its first-ever global campaign, “Start Your Impossible,” which promotes its shift to a mobility company and aims to inspire consumers .

Toyota also is tying its Super Bowl efforts into its eight-year as the Worldwide Mobility Partner of the Olympic and Paralympic Games ahead of the Winter Olympics, which will be staged this month in South Korea. The automaker sat out last year’s Big Game after running ads annually from 2012 through 2016.

Toyota bought the Super Bowl’s first ad slot for “Good Odds,” introduced fans to the incredible story of Lauren Woolstencroft, who beat the odds to win eight Paralympic gold medals.

Its second spot, “Mobility Anthem,” also showed a disabled basketball player using its Exo-Wheel prototype wheelchair and also shows the iBot wheelchair which can go down stairs:

The third spot, “One Team,” was from its long-running U.S. campaign “Let’s Go Places,” and highlights the power of sports fandom.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for our team at Toyota to share messages of unity, friendship, diversity and perseverance,” stated Ed Laukes, group vice president, Toyota Marketing, Toyota Motor North America.

“With the Super Bowl and the Olympics just days apart on NBC, we’re excited to join fans’ enthusiasm for these two world-class events and connect with them by sharing meaningful and inspiring TV spots.”

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