Ad execs probably should have read the full MLK speech before making that commercial.

Things got a little awkward during the Super Bowl when Ram Trucks aired an ad titled “Built to Serve,” featuring the voice of  the late Martin Luther King Jr.

The minute-long commercial was intended to highlight the importance of service, and for that, King’s “The Drum Major’s Instinct” sermon seemed to make for an appropriate backing track. Unfortunately for Ram, the clip came off as a standard truck ad, and it was roundly mocked on social media.

“If you want to be important — wonderful,” King’s voice can be heard over clips of a fisherman loading his daily catch, a teacher scribbling on a chalkboard, and a rancher looking wistfully to the horizon. “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.”

A Ram truck splashes through the rain as King’s voice bellows:

“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 the 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.”

It was a little odd. Some labeled it disrespectful, and others called it hypocritical in light of the ongoing controversy over players kneeling in silent protest. Whatever Ram’s intentions, these likely weren’t the reactions the company was hoping for.

The King Center, founded by his widow, Coretta Scott King, issued a statement distancing itself and CEO Bernice King from the ad. The group responsible for giving Ram the OK is called Intellectual Properties Management, run by Dexter Scott King, King’s son.

If something good does come out of this ad, it’ll be some increased familiarity with King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon.

No minute-long commercial can capture the message of the more than 38-minute-long speech. Yes — that sermon touched on the importance of serving others; it also contained a sharp rebuke of materialism. To add a bit of irony to its use here, the speech also includes an entire section about the dangers of advertising and capitalism — specifically mentioning auto companies. Yikes!

“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. 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. That’s the way the advertisers do it.
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But very seriously, it goes through life; the drum major instinct is real. And you know what else it causes to happen? It often causes us to live above our means. It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. 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.”

The sermon’s core message is that we all have an instinct within us to be the “drum major” of our lives, to lead the parade. That instinct, left unchecked, can drive people to simply marinate in their own ego and seek attention without actually giving much back. King’s message urges us to recognize that instinct, harness it for the power of good, and to allow ourselves to let go of materialism and our need to feel superior over others. In short, it’s everything a car commercial is not.

Part of what makes “The Drum Major Instinct” one of King’s most important works has to do how close it came to his death, just two months after the speech.

He described what he’d like his funeral to look like and how he’d like others to remember him. He asked that rather than draw attention to the many awards he earned during his lifetime that we focus on the message that he helped spread.

50 years after his death, it’s a shame that so much of his work has become so sanitized that his message has been defanged and made palatable for members of society content with the status quo and whose knowledge of his fight started and ended with the “I Have a Dream” speech. There’s so, so much more than that.

King in 1964. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

“Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important,” he asked his audience to remind future eulogists. “Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.”

He continued:

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.  And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.”

Using “The Drum Major Instinct” might have been a big mistake for Ram, but it’s a good reminder for the rest of us to actually listen to the words King preached.

You can listen to a recording of King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon here and read the transcript here.

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