Tuesday, 6 February 2018


Doctor King Rocks a Ram

Martin Luther King Day was celebrated in the United States this past January 15th, less than one month ago. The late civil rights visionary and inspiring orator is perhaps under-served by such a national honour; a pause on a frigid winter’s day doesn’t quite envelope the man in full nor grant a genuine martyr proper justice and respect.

The Super Bowl was played on February 4th. The American championship football game is the singular global television event of the year. The sport itself is no longer the main attraction. The half-time spectacle, a 13- or 14-minute mini concert by one of the world’s biggest music stars draws viewers. The performer works gratis in exchange for exposure to hundreds of millions of ears and eyeballs. Advertisers, famous brands with immense marketing budgets, pile on hoping to share the numbers, leverage that one glorious evening of heightened receptivity. People want to watch ‘the Super Bowl ads’ televised during football’s annual finale. The commercials aren’t invasive or intrusive tonight; no, they’re part of the show!

Big brand. Big spend. Big stage. Big audience. Big opportunity. Big recipe for disaster.

Great advertising will reward you for a few moments of your attention. Essentially, a good ad is the shortest story ever told. You may glean a useful bit of information, have a chuckle or experience an emotion, warm or bittersweet. The tacit intention of the deal is always positive. Great advertising plunders the current zeitgeist and sometimes even pings an agency’s creation back into pop culture to form a sort of Mobius strip of common reference. Classic examples include ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ and Apple’s ‘1984.’

Bad advertising botches any such aspirations exponentially. Metaphors are butchered and analogies slaughtered for a minute of well-intentioned, contrived and patronizing pain that seems to last a lot longer. North American society is more divided than ever. Lately the New World pie hasn’t been doled out in wedges so much as slashed apart by a knife-wielding serial killer. Left, right, up, down, black, white, aboriginal and everyone caught in between, we can’t even mutter at ourselves in our bathroom mirrors let alone converse civilly with other people. Advertisers mean well, bridges (the exclusive walls of luxury brands aside) are generally in their interests. The more consumers, the merrier.

This is how we end up with Dr King, professional football and pickup trucks in the same sentence. God bless Super Sunday but the revolution will not be televised. The Dodge Ram spot debuted incorporates a speech by Dr King extolling the virtue of service to God and community ergo Ram trucks are ‘Built to Serve.’ Expropriating the words of an assassinated African-American reverend in the BlackLivesMatter era in a country still obviously grappling with race after the violent cessation of its 19th century slave economy and then serving up ‘Serve’ in the tag is so wrong-headed as to beggar any, any branding rationale. Nor is there an iota of evidence that Dr King was a closet gearhead, a Road & Track subscriber who frequently paused in his quest for universal civil rights to dream about engine torque and horsepower. 

Decades previous, rockers Bob Seger and John Mellencamp allowed Chevrolet to use songs of theirs to sell trucks. Seger said Detroit was his hometown and if ‘Like a Rock’ helped move another Chevy or two and kept a factory line going, he was okay with that. Mellencamp was less altruistic. He figured that since corporate radio had reduced his entire career to three songs, a television commercial was as good a way as any to give exposure to his latest single.

The speeches of Dr King are in the public domain. As such, his family has no say on the use of something they don’t own. One hopes they were consulted, at least out of courtesy. Perhaps, like Seger and Mellencamp, they were able to somehow rationalize a Super Bowl audience of millions to spread the wisdom and legacy of Dr King. The likely scenario is that the King family was helpless to intervene and is now sickened and embarrassed by the appalling ‘Built to Serve’ result.

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