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Some things are just out of bounds for marketing purposes. Deal with it

Ram Trucks got legal permission to use Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in its ad, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963. (Rowland Scherman/U.S. Information Agency)

It has to be admitted that the Ram Trucks ad featuring a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and played during this year’s Super Bowl, was in fact reasonably subtle. The company’s logo only appeared at the very end, and without much fanfare. In a world of yippee-ki-yay truck ads, featuring manly men doing implausibly manly things in their oversized, manly trucks, an ad focused on promoting service to others set to the inspiring words of true hero is kind of refreshing. Or could have been. Except this is 2018, so what on earth was Fiat Chrysler—makers of Ram trucks—thinking?

A lot of people are referring to the ad, and its use of King’s voice to sell trucks, as “tone deaf.” Some on Twitter were merely “disappointed.” Some referred to it as being in “really poor taste” and “insulting” and even “exploitative.” Others referred to it as an act of appropriation. A number mentioned the irony of celebrating a black civil rights activist during the Super Bowl, given that a black football player—Colin Kaepernick—has effectively been blackballed for his activism.

Now, apparently Fiat Chrysler had the consent of King’s family. That’s clearly important, legally and morally. But members of the family aren’t the only relevant stakeholder here. When an individual, or his memory, is a national treasure, there’s a lot more to consider. Clearly, judging by the blowback, an awful lot of people (of all races) feel that they have a stake here, and felt that the commercial was problematic.

It’s useful when examining things from an ethical point of view to start out charitably. So let’s grant that it’s entirely possible that someone at Fiat Chrysler just really, really admired Dr King, and wanted to be able to use 30 incredibly expensive seconds of Super Bowl airtime to play his words. They are, after all, very good words. More people should hear them. Having over a hundred million people hear them all at once is, in principle, a very good thing. But…2018.

The controversy over the commercial is reminiscent of the controversy over businesses attempting to honour veterans, for example by marking what is called Veterans Day in the U.S., and Remembrance Day in Canada. (On that topic, see my older piece, The Ethics of Businesses Honouring Remembrance Day. See also: How Should Companies Memorialize 9/11?) Honouring veterans is generally a good thing. Capitalizing on the respect we all pay them, however, is a bad thing. The difference here, though, is that the world sort of forces the veterans question upon businesses by designating a special day for honouring veterans. It happens on November 11 (in North America) and on that day, every year, companies are bluntly faced with the choice: either mark the occasion (and risk being accused of capitalizing on the sacrifices made by veterans) or ignore it (and risk being accused of, well, ignoring it). But with regard to a figure like King, advertisers have the option of just staying clear. And it’s easy to see the case—both the business case and the moral case—for diving in: linking your brand to the words of a hero is (if it works!) a marketing coup. And if you’re going to celebrate heroes, then it seems like an especially a good thing to celebrate one who fought for such an important cause.

But then, celebration bleeds so readily into commercialization. And maybe it’s literally impossible for a company to do one without the other. Maybe it would be possible, in a fairer world, a world in which so many people didn’t have so much reason to guard King’s image and words so jealously.

Maybe the folks at Fiat Chrysler needed a bigger focus group—or one that was simply more woke.

Chris MacDonald teaches ethics and critical thinking at theTed Rogers School of Management, where he is director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, and is co-editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics.