Super Bowl Ad Featuring Voice Of Martin Luther King Jr. Sparks Debate
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Some Super Bowl ads make you laugh. Others make you cry. But the Dodge Ram ad that aired last night left many people confused, even angry. It was called "Built To Serve." It featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church 50 years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: 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.
CHANG: The King estate approved the use of that sermon in the ad, and it's not the first time. Anyone remember this ad from the early 2000s?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Before you can inspire...
KING JR: We hold these truths to be self-evident...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Before you can touch...
KING JR: ...That all men are created equal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...You must first connect. And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel, a leader in communication networks.
KING JR: I have a dream.
CHANG: David Garrow is author of the book "Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., And The Southern Christian Leadership Conference." He recalls a huge public outcry to that earlier ad, and so he had this response to last night's spot.
DAVID GARROW: I was flabbergasted that Dodge would think that running an ad like this would be advantageous rather than produce a backlash of criticism.
CHANG: The excerpt of the sermon that we heard last night - that was an excerpt from King's "Drum Major Instinct" sermon. Can tell us a little bit about that sermon and what King might himself have thought about that sermon - that particular sermon being used in this ad?
GARROW: Doc in that sermon was talking about how he wanted to be remembered as a servant to other people. King always, you know, across 12, 13 years, had this fundamental humility about his role. And that's really the central theme of that sermon, like a good many other of his sermons, too.
CHANG: And from what I understand, weren't there are passages in that particular sermon that warned against excessive spending, particularly on cars?
GARROW: Yes. Dr. King was not only a very outspoken opponent of racism. King also repeatedly, again and again, denounced materialism, denounced the pursuit of expensive goods. King lived a very ascetic life. I can remember more than 30 years ago sitting in the living room of the family home, 234 Sunset. And Mrs. King pointed to the window treatment at the front of the living room and said, essentially, Martin didn't want me to spend the money to buy those curtains.
CHANG: So there is something a bit ironic about using his voice to drive consumer spending. I'm curious. What is the criteria that the King estate uses to make decisions about how to use his voice?
GARROW: We don't really know what their criteria are or how much they got paid by Dodge. I would think it's in the millions of dollars, quite frankly. In contrast, authors and writers who nowadays want to use King's words in scholarly books are fearful of the estate coming after them. And that's really the most important thing to stress here, Ailsa - is not Dodge's buying the rights to the excerpts of this sermon but the fact that the estate's behavior again and again serves to diminish and restrict the extent to which people can use and hear King's own words.
CHANG: But if there are such severe restrictions on the use of his words, is hearing Dr. King through an ad still better than not hearing his words at all?
GARROW: I think it's crucial for people to hear King unedited, unselected, to hear at least a few minutes' worth of a sermon like that "Drum Major Instinct" one, not just a few seconds edited down as part of a pickup truck commercial.
CHANG: David Garrow is author of "Bearing The Cross," the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Thank you very much.
GARROW: Oh, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THAD JONES' "BILLIE-DO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.