Advertisers, be warned — proceed with extreme caution when trying to burnish your political awareness credentials.
Ram Trucks, which is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is the latest advertiser to find itself on the wrong side of the social media conversation after it used a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in a Super Bowl commercial.
The ad featured shots of Ram trucks being used by people in acts of charity including rescuing a dog and transporting a church while accompanied by King's words about the importance of service.
The spot was supposed to create a positive impression of the company's volunteer efforts. Instead it turned into every company's nightmare when other parts of the same speech delivered by King exactly 50 years ago on Sunday — known as the "drum major instinct" sermon, from Feb. 4, 1968 — warned of the dangers of advertising, including paying too much for automobiles.
To some viewers, the contrast between the visuals and the words created a different context than Ram intended — and the reaction on social media was swift and fierce.
"Next year we'll see Rosa Parks shilling for Uber: 'convenient, but you still have to sit in the back,'" Kashana Cauley wrote on Twitter.
Advertisers have looked to capitalize on America's current political climate, but success has at times proved elusive. A Pepsi commercial during last year's Super Bowl featuring fashion model Kendall Jenner at a protest became an example of what not to do. Some suggested the ad appropriated Black Lives Matter protestors and took offense at the idea that a sip of soda would pacify riot police. Pepsi quickly pulled the ad.
Most advertisers appeared to have gotten the message. The commercials during this year's Super Bowl were regarded as being markedly less political than last year's ads. In addition to the Ram commercial, a T-Mobile ad featuring a group of babies to celebrate diversity bucked that trend.
Ram's ad stood out, but not in a good way. The ad easily outpaced others with Dodge Ram mentioned in 42 percent of all internet content and social media activity around Super Bowl ads, according to the marketing technology company Amobee. It received a 45 percent negative reaction versus 49 percent neutral. By comparison, sentiment around the Coca-Cola brand following its Super Bowl ads was 9 percent negative and 70 percent neutral.
Strictly speaking, Ram was simply trying to draw attention to its volunteer efforts, but using the King speech without the blessing of some members of the King family — the company did receive permission those family members who hold the rights to King's estate — got it in hot water.
"If you do a spot like this, you have to go to the family," said Jarrod Moses, founder and chief executive of United Entertainment Group, which pairs advertisers with media content. "There is the legal way to do things, and there is the responsible way."
Christopher Chase, a sports marketing lawyer at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York who worked on several Super Bowl commercials, said using famous figures such as presidents and religious figures can be polarizing.
"Dr. King is tough to touch," he said. "He means so much to people on different levels. It's a third rail."
Chase mentioned the disconnect between the Martin Luther King Jr. speech itself and the ad.
"With Dodge Ram, the imagery showed people in service, but the speech wasn't meant for that," Chase said. "If you listen to the later lines of the speech, they were not meant for commercials."
Fiat Chrysler defended the advertisement, telling AdAge: "It is 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave such a tremendous speech about the value of service. Ram was honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually."
Budweiser and Verizon both avoided controversy even as they sought to underscore their efforts to help the community. Budweiser aired an ad about the cans of water it has distributed to victims of natural disasters, while Verizon showcased its work with first responders.
"Conjuring up a famous speech and marrying it to your brand, it's hard to do that," Chase said. "Combining a commercial message with something meant to be inspirational or serving the people is difficult to do."
Indeed, many commercial messages are open to wide interpretation about their cultural meaning. Naeemah Clark, an associate professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, said she thought it was in poor taste initially, but then changed her mind.
"I've decided to celebrate the fact that in 2018, MLK is being used as a mainstream voice," Clark wrote in an email.
Clark isn't alone. Ram's ad received plenty of criticism on social media, but it also received plenty of positive attention. The emotion measurement firm Canvs revealed the emotional responses of those who viewed the spot and shared comments on Facebook. The firm categorized 30.6 percent of 325 written comments as feeling "love" for the ad, while 8.2 percent felt "hate." Other categories — dislike, embarrassing, idiot, annoying and disgusting — each received 2.4 percent.
Clark said she saw one reason to embrace a company's using King's words during the Super Bowl.
"In a time and place where the American president calls the African diaspora a 'shithole,' an advertiser chooses to use MLK's powerful words to reach out to a HUGE, mostly (and largely white) male audience," Clark wrote. "I think it shows that King is not just a figure that African-Americans can revere, but that everyone should."
CORRECTION (Feb 5, 2018, 07:21 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the emotion measurement firm that revealed emotional responses to ads. The firm is Canvs, not iSpot.