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Friday, 09 February 2018 07:26

The Missed Misrepresentation of MLK in Ram's Controversial Super Bowl Ad

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MLK 0209wrp opt(Photo: Scott Ableman / Flickr)The Ram ad in Sunday's Super Bowl has been widely denounced across left and liberal media for the use of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. to sell a truck (even Fox News criticized the ad for not including MLK's advice to only buy affordable cars!).

The ad raised eyebrows, to say the least, among many viewers for the instrumentalization of Martin Luther King Jr.'s words for commercial purposes. This simple fact did not sit well with people, but it is hardly the first time King's words (and likeness) have been licensed to sell products. Today though people are increasingly discomfited by the use of one of the US's greatest civil rights icon to sell products, and that is surely a sign of progress.

More critical viewers perceived a deeper contradiction at work. King was an outspoken critic of consumerism and, even more explicitly in his later years, of capitalism more generally. The USA Today, Vox, HuffPost and others went further. They discovered that the specific speech used in the commercial actually included a direct criticism of manipulative advertising practices, especially those used to sell cars! Ram's creative marketing team conveniently left that part of the speech out of the commercial.

The above criticisms have echoed across social media -- and completely justifiably so. Ram's use of King's speech to sell a truck is a gross misrepresentation and misuse of one of the greatest Black icons in US history (despite the shocking fact that the company which manages the licensing for King's estate approved the final ad before it aired).

But Martin Luther King Jr. was not simply a powerful advocate for civil rights. He was not only a critic of the harms of consumer capitalism. He was also one of the US's greatest antiwar leaders and practitioners of nonviolent resistance.

What is missing from this public discussion and rightful condemnation of the ad on these terms is a serious interrogation of the use of military imagery in the ad while the words of one of the world's most well-known and well-respected pacifists played in the background.

Not only should we balk at the use of the words of one of the US's greatest civil rights heroes, critics of consumerism and anti-capitalists to sell a truck (only made worse by the specific critique of car advertising made in the very same speech which was excerpted for the commercial), but we should be deeply disturbed by the implication made in the ad that King's worldview included support for the US military or military action in general.  

Ostensibly, the Ram ad is designed to connect King's thoughts on service with the corporate philanthropy of Ram and the implication that Ram owners are more active in their communities than other kinds of truck or car owners. "Buy a Ram. Serve your community," it is telling the viewers. We see a variety of images of examples of "service" spliced in with images of Ram trucks while we hear King's message about the importance of civic engagement and public service. Included in the collage of images of "service" are two that show US military personnel.

While it is undeniably true that US military personnel do engage in "nation-building" and various rescue operations around the world, their broader connection to the global US military empire complicates -- if not poisons -- any net benefits the more humanitarian elements of US military action around the world may bring.

King undoubtedly would not have criticized our troops. I'm certainly not suggesting he would have (nor am I making such a critique). There is a difference between not criticizing an often difficult and complicated personal and financial decision to join a military, and believing that such a decision is a paragon of service worth celebrating. What is abundantly clear though for anyone who has studied the life, writings, speeches and political activity of Martin Luther King, Jr. is that military service was not what he meant by service or civic engagement.

King represented the US's tradition of dissent in his opposition to the unjust practices and consequences of racism, capitalism and warfare, and to dragoon his words into an implicit endorsement of the very things he so vocally railed against, is to do serious violence to a legacy of dissent and resistance that Americans need to learn from now more than ever.

The commodification of dissident symbols is hardly new to the US, but that is hardly a justification for complacency when we are faced with such a stark example of it -- especially when the misappropriation is so blatant and egregious on so many different levels.


Bryant William Sculos, Ph.D, is a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, adjunct professor at Florida International University and contributing writer for The Hampton Institute. His previous work has appeared in New Politics; Public Seminar; Constellations; New Political Science; Class, Race and Corporate Power; and in the edited volumes The Political Economy of Robots (Palgrave, 2017) and Marcuse in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2017).