Issue No. 255: The Drum Major Instinct

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Let’s save the outrage for a moment and look at Chrysler’s Ram ad for what it is, a valiant effort and a missed opportunity. Their ad utilized a speech on what MLK called the fall of the Roman empire. Chrysler and their ad agency deserve applause for being gutsy enough to use this as their source material.

Because nations are caught up on the ‘drum major instinct.’ I must be first, I must be supreme, our nation must rule the world. And I am going to continue to say it to America. Because I love this country too much to see the drift that it’s taken.

Martin Luther King, in the same speech.

In an NFL season that was heavy on the politics, Super Bowl advertisements generally held American politics at arm’s length. It’s clear that there has been social activism fatigue. But this Ram Trucks’ ad attempted to be all things to all people and frankly, only courage can convert a valiant effort into a meaningful outcome.

There are levels to consider here and it begins with the framing of the advertisement:

  • Ram wants to sell trucks. This is the only reason that you pay $5M for an ad on the world’s biggest stage.
  • Chrysler outsourced this concept and direction to High Dive, a boutique agency in Chicago. Their attempt was likely well-meaning.
  • February is Black History Month.
  • Martin Luther King is a safe American hero.
  • Both the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots fielded activist players in the 2017-2018 season.
  • Chrysler is leaning on the President’s approval rating to make a statement that they felt most reasonable Americans agreed with.

This particular creative agency would likely identify as liberal. And it’s also likely that they felt that this advertisement was an opportunity to do more than move products. Ram’s agency has an interesting mantra on their homepage:

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This likely motivated their approach here. The juxtaposition of the famous MLK Drum Major Instinct speech, exactly fifty years prior to the biggest game of the year, was too much to pass up. This, even though the speech’s context makes little sense when you consider what they chose for the advertisement’s imagery.

The above agency requested permission from the King Family Estate to use his likeness in the ad. And upon receiving that permission, we can infer that there was a battle between the creative agency and the in-house marketing team at Chrysler.

Martin Luther King was obviously a great man but for context, by 1968 he had grown weary of the Vietnam War. He’d also taken up the mantle for America’s poor (of all ethnicities). He’d publicly called for an end to American corporate greed. His popularity was at an all-time low by then. With the “Drum Major” speech, he established a few basic tenets of the American far left platform that endured for decades. This ad was an attempt to juxtapose his words with our times.

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I’d venture to guess that the creative agency wanted imagery of a player kneeling. Because, of course they did. The Ram team at Chrysler likely objected and compromised by allowing High Dive to include the 1.7 seconds of a team of African-American high school football players kneeling for their pre-game prayer. It’s imagery that’s vague enough to be a political non-issue in an ad about trucks that targets 25-35 year old men in towns like Cookeville, Tennessee.

The real appeal of using this MLK speech was his re-defining of the word “great” – an argument against the current administration’s “Make America Great Again” motto. With an approval rate in the 30’s, this was a safe calculation. The Chrysler team latched on to this politically-centrist approach because it is inoffensive to the right and (assumably) endearing to the left.

In so many words, the ad in a sentence was:

America is great already and it’s because we are a nation of servants who believe in helping our fellow man. Ram is the vehicle for those who serve.

I completely understand this collective thought process. If you don’t, consider that no sport delved deeper into the world of social activism than the NFL’s small band of players – one of whom was starting for the Philadelphia Eagles.  The other of whom was banned from playing the game. Neither of whom were involved in the advertisement and for obvious brand demographic reasons. The stage was set to execute one of the most meaningful ads of the past year.

But the ad fell flat. And this is where a diversity of opinion and background is handy in creative environments.

Throughout 2017, there was quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. Many NFL fans, commentators, politicians, and our President damned those men who took part in peaceful protest. This while uplifting and honoring the man who originated it. In this way, Ram inadvertently highlighted that cognitive dissonance and set off quite a nerve on social media and beyond.

ESPN’s Darren Rovell in a message to 2PM:

A company really cant use that speech to sell something. It just feels dirty. I at least had that reaction and everyone on Twitter seemed to have as well. Just like the Prince projection, when we bring back the dead, we have to be so careful. I think Dodge got caught up on the 50 years idea. But didn’t fully think through how the crass commercialism make it hard to use the speech as a device to better sell.

I am not upset by the advertisement, itself. The King family’s estate approved it and the creative agency likely did the best that they could with some mighty restraints.

I am upset that the opportunity was wasted and even the smallest tweak to the visuals could have eased the uproar.

There was no stock footage of Ram trucks serving others in times of need. There was no archival footage of peaceful protestors jumping out of the bed of a truck to meet their friends at the front line. There wasn’t even that reconciliatory visual of a service member (who serves) and the athlete / political activist (who serves) both coming to terms with each other’s efforts.

MLK’s sermons were so powerful because they made us think about our own human flaws.

But perhaps next time, agencies and in-house corporate teams can possess the courage to take a step out of their comfort zones, leaning in to authentic messaging. Even if it’s not tidy or politically correct. This, too, is a form of service. 

This is the opinion of  the editor. The 2PM Parse pod is devoted to breaking down advertisements like these – the good and the bad. 

Read more of the issue here.


Listen to the entire MLK speech here. At the time of publishing, this ad was viewed 14x more than Ram’s lauded viking ad.

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