Dr. Alex Wainer, professor of communication and media studies
The recent kerfuffle over several Super Bowl ads is a reminder that in a media world that runs on advertising, a marketing strategy can sometimes go bad. Specifically, the Ram pickup truck ad featuring a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extolling the power of serving others played over a montage Americans engaged in various pro-social activities including military service, school teaching and other community-building activities, using dramatic music, and lit with a warm glow .
When Dr. King’s words, drawing on Jesus’ call for those who would be great to be the servant of all, ended with “That’s a new definition of greatness,” the commercial cut to the image of a new model Ram truck splashing through the mud, with the obvious inference that the truck shared in this virtuous activity—or that those who drove the truck would bask in its aura of greatness.
The ad was rightly mocked for cheapening the soaring rhetoric so close to the heart of Christian discipleship. PBA’s own Dr. Terriel Byrd, who’s researched King’s rhetoric, remarked, “I'm very appalled by the exploitation of Dr. King's words for commercial gain.” King, he says, was modest man. “He was very critical of the opulence promoted in the larger society.” So, it’s hard to imagine King endorsing the use of his stirring words to implicitly endorse a truck, “built to serve,” as the ad’s slogan goes.
Despite this, the commercial actually stands in the tradition of a type of advertising that uses national and even religious symbols, long invested with deep meaning to millions, as props for selling products. Communications scholar Neal Postman wrote years ago in his book, Technopoly, about “the Great Symbol Drain,” whereby the Statue of Liberty, the Founding Fathers (in Presidents Day sales) and other emblems of national and religious meaning are appropriated by advertisers to often humorously promote their wares.
Using Dr. King’s rhetoric, some of the most powerful of the 20th century, to positively associate an automobile with serving one’s neighbor is just the latest attempt to co-opt the highest spiritual values of our society. Advertisers have used such strained associations successfully for so long, counting on emotional appeals instead of rational, fact-based ones that we tend to take it in stride until, like the Ram ad, it goes too far to shrug off.
That’s why later in the game, another commercial stood out by reminding us that just showing the product performing effectively is a better ad strategy. The Jeep Wrangler ad featuring the red SUV crossing a pond and then climbing out of it across several levels of a creek bed. (and yes, a caption showed offered this disclaimer: “Closed man-made lake and waterfall. Always follow applicable law,” to placate environmental concerns.) But the voiceover this time was an announcer’s voice that intoned, “Big declarations, making claims to some overarching human truth. Companies call these commercials ‘manifestos,’” and as the Jeep reached the top of the waterfall, finished with, “There’s your manifesto.”
Two contrasting ads, one criticizing the other’s strategy of hijacking powerful messages to bask in their stolen glory, while simply showing what their product is capable of. And the irony is that both ads come from the same company: Fiat Chrysler. Even in the age of pretentious spin, it’s still possible to sell a product by simply demonstrating its assets.
Dr. Alex Wainer is Professor of Communication & Media Studies in the School of Communication and Media. He is author of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.