During the second quarter of the Super Bowl, NBC aired a rather surprising ad from Ram Trucks featuring the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving one of his final addresses, “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon. The beginning of the ad points out the speech was delivered exactly 50 years ago from today—today being Super Bowl Sunday. King was assassinated two months later in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The use of King’s voice in the ad wasn’t just jarring for its tastelessness—which many, many, many people pointed out on Twitter—but also because King’s estate is notoriously litigious when it comes to the use of his speeches without permission, and restrictive when it comes to requests. The film Selma, about the King-led civil rights march on the Alabama town directed by Ava DuVernay, didn’t even use his speeches, likely because producers feared including the speeches would earn the attention the King estate’s lawyers. (The estate had already licensed the film rights to the speeches in question to other movie studios.)
Ram Trucks didn’t have to worry about any legal blowback, because it says it got the nod from the MLK Estate. The brand “worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals,” a representative from Ram Trucks told me in an email. “Estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process.” The King estate did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The King estate is not to be confused with the King Center, the nonprofit established by MLK’s wife Coretta Scott King. As it wrote on Twitter:
And Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, also distanced herself from the ad, replying to a tweet:
The ad features images of Americans with their families, riding horses, teaching math, working outside, and volunteering in their communities. “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ram truck owners also believe in a life of serving others,” the description of the ad on the Ram Trucks YouTube page reads.
It’s not a connection King would have likely been OK with. “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” King said in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.
Update, 10:01 p.m. Slate received this statement from Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, Inc., which is the “exclusive licensor” of the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
When Ram approached the King Estate with the idea of featuring Dr. King’s voice in a new “Built To Serve” commercial, we were pleasantly surprised at the existence of the Ram Nation volunteers and their efforts. We learned that as a volunteer group of Ram owners, they serve others through everything from natural disaster relief, to blood drives, to local community volunteer initiatives. Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances. We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others. Thus we decided to be a part of Ram’s “Built To Serve” Super Bowl program.