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Martin Luther King Jr. sermon used in a Ram Trucks Super Bowl commercial draws backlash

Service and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were featured in this 2018 Super Bowl ad. (Video: Ram Trucks)

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was featured during the Super Bowl commercials Sunday night, but the use of one of his sermons to sell trucks drew swift backlash on social media. A commercial for Ram Trucks featured a portion of a sermon from King, a use that was approved by the managers of his estate but opposed by other entities associated with King.

The ad begins by noting that King delivered the sermon — known as “The Drum Major Instinct” — on Feb. 4, 1968, 50 years ago Sunday. In the sermon, delivered two months before he was assassinated, King also advised people not to spend too much on cars.

According to Stanford University’s reprinting of his sermon, it was an adaptation of the 1952 homily ‘‘Drum-Major Instincts’’ by J. Wallace Hamilton, who was a well-known, white liberal Methodist preacher at the time.

Here is the text from the sermon that was used as a voice-over in the commercial:

“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know [Einstein’s] theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

His sermon, delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where he was a pastor, referenced the biblical passage Matthew 23:11-12, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”

The ad shows Americans experiencing moments of struggle, such as a sweating man doing pushups, and moments of heroism, such as a firefighter carrying a boy outside a burning building. It also shows a Ram truck transporting a church.

What the Super Bowl ad doesn’t include is the part of King’s sermon in which he warns against the dangers of spending too much when buying a car and not trying to keep up with the Joneses.

“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,” King said in his sermon. “But it feeds a repressed ego. You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of $5,000, your car shouldn’t cost more than about $2,500. That’s just good economics.”

Someone took the Ram ad and overlaid it with what King said about cars and capitalism.

“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers,” King said in his sermon. “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. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.”

The edited ad continues, “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. … And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America.”

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King concluded that sermon by imagining his own funeral, saying he wanted to be remembered for doing good deeds, including serving others. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of King, who was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

The King Center, which was founded as a memorial to King by his wife, Coretta Scott King, tweeted that the center and its chief executive, Bernice King, the youngest child of the Kings, do not approve of the use of his words in advertisements.

Bernice King also distanced herself from the ad.

Eric D. Tidwell, manager of the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, which handles the licensing King’s intellectual property, made the decision to allow King’s sermon to be used in the advertisement.

“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,” Tidwell said in a statement to The Post.

He said the advertisement was reviewed to ensure it met “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,” he said.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles defended the ad, which was made by a Chicago-based boutique ad agency called Highdive, according to AdAge.

“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,” the company said in a statement.

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The Drum Major Institute, which was founded to preserve King’s legacy, said it “in no way condones the use of Dr. King’s sermon for this purpose.”

“In a twist of irony, one of the specific evils Dr. King condemned was the exploitation of the drum major instinct by advertisers, particularly car advertisers,” the statement said.

Several people on social media found the commercial distasteful.

Religion made another appearance in a separate Super Bowl commercial, in which Toyota used religious leaders to advertise trucks. A rabbi, a priest, an imam and a Buddhist monk loaded into a truck to go to a football game with the tagline, “We’re all on one team.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from Eric D. Tidwell, the manager of the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King. It has also been updated to include statements from Bernice King, the Drum Major Institute and an ad that overlaid a different portion of King’s sermon onto the ad. 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly named the company that ran the ad. It was by Ram Trucks.