Another Super Bowl has come and gone. Another over-hyped football game, another excuse for Americans to pig out, another bubble gum pop halftime show full of cheap thrills, and another parade of commercials promoting the American Dream through gross commercialism. Now it’s time for everyone to gather around the water cooler to talk about this year’s celebration of American capitalism.
This year’s Super Bowl commercials were the usual collection of hits (Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman rapping, David Harbour’s Tide ads) and misses (Bud Light continuing to try to make “Dilly dilly” a thing). One commercial that got people talking was Dodge Ram using an old Martin Luther King Jr. sermon to sell trucks. On the surface, everything looks good: a montage of teachers, soldiers, barbers, and first responders serving their respective community while Dr. King says, “You don’t have to know the theory of relativity to serve.” However, given the context of Dr. King’s legacy, the commercial is an ultimate failure.
Americans like to remember King as a neo-liberal hippie-dippie “Let’s love everyone” kind of person. He may have preached nonviolent resistance and dreamed of a world where his children would be judged by their character instead of their skin color. However, history has watered down Dr. King’s radicalism in order to make him more palatable to the general public, ultimately molding him as the Respectable Negro prototype.
For example, during the Baltimore Uprising of 2015, many white commentators rung their hands and said, “Martin Luther King wouldn’t have wanted this.” It’s true that King didn’t condone the race riots of the 1960s, but he stated publicly he could not condemn them either because “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he condemned white moderates for constantly telling him, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” (even though now white moderates use King’s nonviolent resistance example to perpetuate respectability politics). And in his 1967 speech “The Three Evils of Society,” King reminded listeners that “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
Interestingly enough, the sermon that Dodge Ram used for their ad, “The Drum Major Instinct,” has something to say about advertising:
Now the presence of this instinct [to join the crowd] 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.
Of course this is nothing new. Capitalism has a history of using yesterday’s revolutionaries as today’s marketing gimmicks (Che Guevara shirts, anyone?). Hell, as we’ve seen with Kylie Jenner’s tone deaf Pepsi ad, marketers can even use today’s fight for liberation to sell products! If the French Revolution occurred today, I have no doubt Coca-Cola would put guillotines on their cans in order to make a profit.
I can only imagine what next year’s Super Bowl ads have in store. Malcolm X selling shampoo? A Taco Bell commercial starring a hologram of Sylvia Rivera? Angela Davis driving a Ford? The possibilities are endless at this point, and that’s what scares me.