Madison Avenue has never been afraid to use an unlikely pitchman to make a point. Chrysler enlisted Bob Dylan to sell cars in Super Bowl XLVIII.  The people behind the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner resurrected the image of a deceased Fred Astaire to dance with the appliance in Super Bowl XXXI.

But now the advertising industry may have run against a wall. Someone tried to use Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sell cars.


Fiat Chrysler Group last night took a long snippet of Dr. King giving one of his final sermons, known as “The Drum Major Instinct,” and wove it into an ad for its Ram Trucks. In the speech, the civil-rights leader told listeners that in order to serve, “you only need a heart full of grace. Soul generated by love.” He also says: “You don’t have to know about Pluto and Aristotle to serve.” The Ram ad ended with an on-screen slogan: “Built to Serve.”

Twitter users, who often consider their access to the social platform as permission to sound off about any number of topics, let loose with what Walt Whitman once called a “barbaric yawp.” Give us Mr. Whipple. Give us Colonel Sanders. Give us George Clooney selling Nespresso machines. But Dr. King is off-limits.

Fiat Chrysler has in recent years become known for filling the Super Bowl ad roster with commercials that are often clever – and sometimes a bit outrageous (see the Bob Dylan example, above). In 2011, the company broke the rules of advertising around the game, taking out a two-minute ad to tout the resurrection of Detroit after a severe U.S. recession. The commercial, backed by a song from Eminem, was inspiring. A commercial that followed the next year led by Clint Eastwood declaring it to be “halftime in America,” sparked debate.

Super Bowl advertisers have used famous words – and the famous men who spoke them – in the past.

In 2015, Carnival Cruises put together a spot narrated by President John F. Kennedy, using a 1962 speech he made for America’s Cup crews. And Fiat Chrysler struck a chord in 2013 when it used a chunk of conservative commentator Paul Harvey’s “So God Made A Farmer” speech as the backdrop for a two-minute ad for Ram Trucks. “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker,’” said Harvey. “So God made a farmer.” The ad featured many pictures of hard-working agrarians. And many pictures of hard-working Ram Trucks.

“It’s a tried-and-true technique that seems to work for Super Bowl,” noted Rob Reilly, global creative chairman at Interpublic Group’s McCann WorldGroup, adding: “It’s a strange choice for trucks.”

Some members of Dr. King’s family agreed. Bernice King, the minister’s youngest daughter, indicated on Twitter that she did not have a hand in approving the commercial. And The King Center, the non-profit founded by Coretta Scott King, said in the same forum that is “not the entity that approves” the use of Dr. King’s words for entertainment or ads.

And yet, someone did give permission. Fiat Chrysler said it was “honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually. 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.”

Ram Trucks did have cooperation. Intellectual Properties Management, the entity that manages the King estate, was “pleasantly surprised” to discover a group of volunteer Ram owners that “serve others through everything from natural disaster relief, to blood drives, to local community volunteer initiatives,” said Eric Tidwell, managing director of IPM, via email. “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.”

Whether that element came through on Super Bowl Sunday, as millions of viewers hung out at parties, snacked and watched dozens of other ads, is a matter for debate.

Every Super Bowl ad roster has a dud –  a commercial that angers more than it soothes or sells. Mars Inc. stepped over a line in 2007 when it aired a 30 second Super Bowl commercial for Snickers that showed two men accidentally kissing – drawing protest from groups representing gay Americans. General Motors in that same year ran a Super Bowl ad showing a robot leaping off a bridge in a dream sequence, sparking pushback from an anti-suicide group. The Ram Trucks spot may serve that role in 2018.

Dr. King’s voice has sounded in other advertising. Telecommunications company Alcatel showed King giving his seminal “I Have A Dream” speech to an empty Mall in Washington, D.C.. The appearance was also approved by IPM. Mercedes, Chevrolet and Apple have all used King’s likeness in commercials, too.

Every advertiser strives to make an iconic commercial. But when the subject of the ad has achieved similar status, the results may distract more than they drive sales.