Did Ram Trucks score or stumble with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ad?

Rev. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Ralph David Abernathy and others march in Atlanta in 1966. AJC file photo

Danica Kombol viewed the Super Bowl ad with a mix of horror and incredulity. Surely an auto company was not using audio of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a commercial for pickup trucks. Surely not.

“When we were watching it we were like .. no. They couldn’t. They couldn’t. They did,” said Kombol, a social media strategist and CEO of the Everywhere Agency.

The Ram Trucks ad, titled “Built to Serve,” features audio from a fiery, inspiring public oration not long before King was shot to death, and modern clips of people pitching in to help those in need. The trucks only appear briefly a couple of times, and the message seems to be their highest use is in serving others – transporting relief materials to storm victims, for example.

(Scroll down to see the ad).

Although the automaker might have had the best of intentions, the ad was tone deaf, Kombol said.

“Dodge tried to ram MLK’s speech down our throats to sell some trucks,” she said. “They hijacked a Civil Rights leaders’ words for their own purposes.”

RELATED: All the new updates at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park

To be clear, the ad folks had the proper legal clearance to use the audio and at least some official blessing.

Intellectual Properties Management is the licenser of the King estate. Dexter Scott King is the organization’s CEO and CFO and, as of 2011, Bernice King is the secretary, according to documents on file with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. Prior to that year, Dexter King also was listed as secretary, documents show.

The entity’s managing director, Eric D. Tidwell explained how Dodge obtained the legal OK to use the late King’s voice. Ram Trucks has this as its pinned tweet:

MORE: Here’s the entire speech excerpted in the ad

Ram Trucks draws backlash after airing ad with MLK’s voice

That time Bernice King shut down Pepsi with one tweet

Amid the swift social media furor sparked by ad, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change posted a message saying neither the center nor Bernice King, its and its CEO, are the governing authorities in charge of licensing use of King’s images or words.

Here’s the ad:

Over the past decade, a number of lawsuits have pitted King siblings against each other. In 2014, Dexter and Martin Luther King III outvoted their sister in favor of selling items including their father’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and his Bible, which former President Barack Obama used during his second swearing in.

After Bernice King protested, the family ended up in court, with former President Jimmy Carter brought in to help mediate. A Fulton County judge ended up awarding possession of the Bible to his estate, which is controlled by Dexter and Martin Luther King III.

(Read AJC reporter Jeremy Redmon’s article about the dispute here.)

Following the Super Bowl ad, Bernice King posted a link to the entire speech excerpted in the clip and urged people to study the entire text and her father’s nonviolent practices.

“It’s more than a tactic,” she posted.

Although social media was swift to condemn the commercial use of the late King’s voice in a spot for pickup trucks, author and commentator Eric Schiffer, CEO of ReputationManagementConsultants.com, thinks the buzz surrounding the ad ultimately will benefit Ram Trucks.

“Dodge’s Ram ad with its beautiful, positive message on Super Bowl Sunday aired when America is need of coming together,” he said. “Dodge’s values aligns with MLK’s message and it didn’t bother MLK’s rights holders who approved the license. The controversy will be a net benefit to the Ram truck’s brand because of the extra attention, especially when the underlying message is an elegantly positive and soulful one.”

Reader Comments 0

3 comments
Ryan Albanese
Ryan Albanese

I didn't have a problem with it. Dr. Kings message has always been for all people.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

So wrong.  So wrong.  But then it reveals much about what "MLK's rights holders" value and don't value.  And that's good to know.

Andrea Sarvady
Andrea Sarvady

It was appalling. I can't imagine thinking otherwise.