Super Bowl LII: FCA Responds to Critics About MLK Sermon

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What looked to be a big marketing touchdown for Fiat Chrysler in the Super Bowl turned out to have a penalty flag attached to it instead.

The chorus of objections rose quickly to FCA’s use of of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice and sermon excerpt in its advertisement for Ram Trucks during the Big Game on Sunday. The ad, below, was a lofty paean to service, but its intentions and execution got lost amidst the criticism.

Critics have not just taken aim at the mere commercialization of a revered American hero, in the 50th anniversary year after his death. They argue that it goes against the message that King was delivering in the address used by FCA, known as “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon, which he delivered on February 4, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It was given two months to the day before King’s assassination.

“Built To Serve” focused on the part of the sermon by Dr. King about achieving greatness through service. Emergency responders and others in the ad were depicted doing just that, and some were shown using Ram Trucks to help.

The King sermon in its entirety also admonished listeners to be wary of the exploitation of what he called the “drum major instinct” by advertisers who want to get people to “live above our means.” Ironically, in the sermon, King warned listeners to be wary of car advertising.

“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers,” King said in the speech. “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.  In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.”

He also said in the sermon, “You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t even earn enough to have a good Model-T Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.”

More damaging criticism of FCA was leveled by the Drum Major Institute, which calls itself an organization “dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.”

William B. Wachtel, co-founder of the organization, said that his organization “in no way condones the use of Dr. King’s sermon for this purpose” and called FCA’s use of the sermon “a twist of irony.”

That missive followed a series of viewer complaints on Twitter, where King’s daughter Bernice joined the chorus:

However, FCA defended itself, the automaker stated it obtained the rights to use the sermon excerpt from the King Estate, which manages his intellectual property:

“It is 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave such a tremendous speech about the value of service,” FCA stated. “Ram was honored to have the privilege of working with the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually.

“We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals, and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way,” the automaker added. The King Estate backed up what FCA said in its own comments on Monday.

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