To pimp a dream: MLK voiceover sells Dodge trucks, draws criticism

3 mins read

The Super Bowl is a yearly fete known in more contemporary times for its advertisements and half-time shows.

This year drew online outrage with the use of Civil Rights icon, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to market automobiles. Ironically, he vehemently expressed dissent from dominant culture’s promotion of materialism.

Sometime in the broadcast of the 52nd Super Bowl, an advert employed a voiceover of King to sell Dodge Ram trucks. The theme of the commercial was, built to serve, which somehow connected masculinity and hard work to distinction.

As a melodic flow of images showing working class people engaged in various forms of laborious activities flashed across the screen, King preaches about the “definition of greatness.”

Taken from a speech titled, “Drum Major Instinct,” the delivery by King fell exactly on the day of the Super Bowl 50 years ago. It would be two months later in 1968 that King would be assassinated in Memphis.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Again


When people online began to investigate King’s words. They discovered that his full sermon completely contrasts the messaging of Dodge’s advertisement.

Embedded in the top of this story is a video by Nathan Robison who pulls another section of the same speech by King that critiques marketing specifically, and capitalism in general.

Later in the speech King spews:

“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.”

Robin Caldwell, a public relations consultant who researches and specializes in mass-mediated images of African Americans says, “MLK’s point [in this speech] was that we should use our leadership for justice.”

She continues, “Fiat Chrysler recreated the meaning of his sermon by sound-biting him and leaving out the parts that condemn advertising’s influence. They should hope that the people opposing their mis-use of his image are not their consumers.”

The Legacy of King

Many people know King for his work towards racial equality, ending segregation and the advocacy work around the passage of Civil Rights laws to protect the rights of black citizens.

However, the last years of his life focused on economic empowerment by eradicating the severe wealth gap in America. As well, he criticized the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and overall the system of economic exploitation.

When touring the United States, King saw gross poverty throughout America. More so, he witnessed institutionalized segregation in the Northern parts of the country. So disturbed by the disparities he observed, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967 to demand economic and human rights for those who lived in dire poverty.

“MLK believed that economic justice and equality was as important as political social equality,” explained Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

The Dodge Ram commercial was farthest from King’s principles. In fact, during his time, he gave away money that he earned from speaking engagements and awards. If anything, the ad redirects his message and legacy.

To Sellout a Legacy

The King Estate is known to hold a tight rein on how his image and speeches are used. The ad was not an exception.

HIgh Dive page showing associates

The advertising company hired to create the commercial was Chicago-based, High Dive. On the website of the self-described boutique firm with the tag line, “Looking for brave thinking,” it shows an all-white associate staff.

Although, Ark Republic could not find any statement by High Dive regarding the commercial, it was discovered that Intellectual Properties Management (IPM) approved the licensing rights.

IPM oversees the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inc.; thus is responsible for any business involving the images and words of King. The CEO of IPM is a King’s son, Dexter Scott King.

To remove any association, Bernice King, the last surviving daughter of MLK released a statement on Twitter that she was not involved in the decision making.

Years ago on “Some of Us Are Brave,” a radio program on KPFK, interviewed Elaine Brown. The former chair of the Black Panther Party said that if the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to be sanitized, in 20 years, he would be a blond haired white woman. Winter is coming.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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