Dodge draws swift backlash over MLK commercial

Although many companies attempted to share a socially conscious message during the Super Bowl, the automaker sparked outrage with an ad that used the voice of MLK to sell trucks.

Socially conscious messaging requires a light touch and extensive testing in focus groups.

Several companies during the 2018 Super Bowl attempted to highlight their commitment to social justice and service. Verizon thanked first responders in its spot; Budweiser talked about providing water to those affected by natural disasters.

When Dodge used the voice of MLK to sell its truck, for many watching the game, it crossed a line.

The New York Times reported:

The commercial showed scenes of people helping others while Dr. King extolled the virtues of service. At the end, the phrase “Built to Serve” was shown on the screen, along with the Ram logo.

“MLK wanted equal rights and for me to buy a Dodge Ram,” one Twitter user wrote. Another wrote: “Black people cant kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the super bowl. Unbelievable.”

The company seemed to be blindsided by the backlash, having spent millions of dollars for the 60-second ad, but some experts said the gamble to use MLK’s voice was foolish.

The New York Times continued:

“It’s the wrong mistake to make given everything that’s going on in the U.S. right now,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “There’s so much emotion right now around race in this country that this was a high-risk move, and clearly it’s not going over very well.”

Others asserted that the use of MLK’s words went against what MLK had said earlier in his speech, at best making him a poor spokesman for the truck company.

In a piece for the New York Daily News, Leonard Green wrote:

The worst thing about the commercial — besides the fact that it co-opts and corrupts the slain civil rights leader in the middle of Black History Month — is that it takes King’s comments out of context.

Before King launched into his message about service, he actually had something to say about how to buy a car.

“You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income,” King says in the same speech.

“So if you make an income of $5,000 dollars, your car shouldn’t cost more than about $2,500. That’s just good economics. And if it’s a family of two, and both members of the family make $10,000, 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 seen people making $5,000 a year and driving a car that costs $6,000? And they wonder why their ends never meet.”

Not exactly what Dodge was trying to say, was it?

Online, someone remade the Dodge commercial with a different King excerpt to show that King’s message was actually anti-capitalist:

Two rival automakers struck a far less divisive tone with their Super Bowl ads: Toyota shared the inspiring story of Paralympic Gold Medalist Lauren Woolstencroft, and Jeep stuck with traditional imagery of its rugged vehicle powering through a creek bed.

Other companies took heat for their attempts to tout their social responsibility:

Dodge, though, took most of the flak:

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S., the parent company for Dodge, said in a statement that it had consulted with the estate for how to use the voice of the slain civil rights leader.

The New York Times reported:

“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 company said.

Susan Credle, global chief creative officer of the agency FCB, marveled at the speed of the online backlash around the ad and said it showed the risks of wading into social commentary, especially during an event like the Super Bowl.

“You get so crucified, so fast,” she said, adding, “We’re just in a place where we get called out on authenticity and people don’t want to be emotionally manipulated.”

The takeaway for marketers? Even if the estate says it’s OK, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will, too.

Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King tweeted a plea for everyone to take a deeper look at her father’s words.

Marketers would do well to heed her advice before borrowing words from the civil rights icon—or making other questionable attempts at merging social responsibility and sheer commerce.

What are your thoughts, PR Daily readers, about the Dodge ad and the other commercials that aired during the Super Bowl?

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