Dodge and MLK’s ‘Drum Major Instinct’

In a brief Super Bowl commercial, Dodge advertised its signature Ram trucks using audio from a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Football fans and detractors may have at least one point of agreement: the Super Bowl is known for its commercials. From the outright comedic to the powerfully serious, companies pay top dollar to make a statement with their advertisements. Yet, perhaps one of these companies took it too far this time.

In a spot that runs for just one minute, Dodge advertised its Ram trucks using audio from a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “If you want to be great—wonderful! But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant,” the audio clip powerfully stated as scenes of people serving others, interspersed with random shots of Dodge’s signature truck, were shown.

Beyond the concern of whether Dr. King—or his surviving relatives—would have wanted his words to be used in this manner is the jarring context from which the audio clip is pulled. On February 4, 1968, Dr. King gave a sermon titled “Drum Major Instinct,” in which he expounded on the worldly temptations of a “drum major instinct,” which he described as “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo
A photo of Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Specifically, King spelled out for his listeners the evils of living above one’s means with fancy cars, all for the sake of being on top:

“Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego…. But now the problem is, it is the drum major instinct. And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses…. And I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car.”

Quite clearly, Dr. King’s sermon actually undercuts Dodge’s desire to sell more of their trucks using his words. The question at this point is not whether Dodge intended to use Dr. King’s words out of context, but rather, what is the impact of this poor decision?

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Perhaps this misappropriation of Dr. King and his words is a small piece of a larger puzzle.

“To remember only the ‘quotable King’ is to misappropriate his legacy,” and to “eviscerate King’s ministry of its more controversial elements is to misappropriate his legacy and hamstring the stride toward freedom,” Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, states poignantly.

All too often, people of color—their personhood and their words—are utilized and appropriated only when they meet the majority culture’s agenda and don’t rock the status quo. Just like using the “quotable King” at the expense of the “controversial King,” the majority culture views Black football players as heroes and role models until they dare protest police brutality and social injustices in this nation.

Even if done with the best of intentions, the Dodge commercial still propagates a utilitarian view of people of color. Yet, as with all mistakes, there is always time to make amends, change direction, and step forward. As many have spoken up about this issue, the hope and prayer is that the watching world won’t affirm people of color only when it is convenient and comfortable to do so.

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