Built to Serve: Dodge Truck Ad is an Exercise in Misappropriation

Toyota–good game. Although, would it have killed you to have a woman rabbi or something?

J.T– Well-played with that whole Prince thing. Seriously, bravo. But it’s not lost on us that Janet still has a lifetime ban from the Super Bowl, even though you’re the one that ripped her top. So there’s that.

Which is to say, the slightest awareness of privilege and pervasive inequality ruins everything; especially the Super Bowl and its commercials.

Marketing shapes our culture in more ways than we’d care to admit. It can call out our deepest humanity, it can move us, it can work to normalize diversity in ways subtle and overt… it can also be manipulative, reinforce our worst stereotypes, and portray “people as things” in really toxic fashion. And we saw the best and worst of all that last night.

The best? T-Mobile. Panning across the sweet faces of all those multi-colored babies, while talking about equal pay?? I’m in. It’s almost enough to make me go back to them for cell service (if only Google Fi wasn’t half the price…) But whether or not they ever woo me back to their product line, slow clap for the ad.

From where I sit, T-Mobile, Toyota, and J.T. won the Super Bowl. But no matter where you sit, we all know who lost: Dodge trucks. Holy shit, people. WT-actual-F was that?

In case you missed it–they did what advertisers do. They paired lovely images with beautiful, inspiring words. In this case, they showed scenes of everyday American life, beautiful, regular people stuff: working and having babies and wrangling the herd and living in community. In the background, we heard a familiar, resounding voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the message: we are all built to serve.

That’s lovely and all. Until you put together the sounds and the images and realize they’ve lifted parts of his famous “Drum Major” speech to try and sell you a stupid truck. They are literally using his words, which were spoken for human rights and dignity, to “serve” their own product line.

First and foremost, there are some burning questions about ownership. There’s much public debate about this. Once someone’s figure, face, words and voice become iconic–part of the canon of public life–who owns those words, that voice? Many of Dr. King’s speeches were public, and therefore can’t be copyrighted. Still– lifting his words so dramatically out of context in order to sell a product is dicey ethical territory at best, even if it is not expressly illegal.

Take the ethics out of it for a minute though and just sit with the absurdity… That a marketing team of white men (I looked it up) would have the hubris to attach the voice of a significant social justice movement to their profit margin. It is not just tacky, it’s downright obscene. And it shows the oblivious way in which white folks tend to approach…well, everything. But commerce in particular. We make and sell and buy and trade and grow without limits, at the expense of the poor and the marginalized. White men see no harm in hijacking the voice of one who spoke for the marginalized, and then they misappropriate his words to sell their own product. This dynamic calls to mind all the other products that white people have literally harvested off the backs of black people, who were seen and understood as “built to serve” in the most grotesque ways imaginable. That’s the dark truth of American prosperity, and it haunts us still.

The hijacking of a social justice message for capital gain is nothing new. White preachers do it every week. They take the words of one who spoke for the poor, the marginalized, and the voiceless… and claim those words for the cause of patriarchy. They preach capitalism and call it gospel. Take a Bible and a football and wrap them up in an American flag, and you’ve got pretty much any Sunday in America, Anywhere U.S.A.

The commercial, though obtuse and culturally tone deaf, should not surprise us. This is who we are. This is what we do. We–white people, privileged people, members of the dominant culture/religion/product-for-sale–we take what we want and we wrap it up in our own narrative, and we call it good. We really need to stop doing that.

In a twist of poetic irony, someone took a different part of that Dr. King speech and played it over the same Dodge commercial… So now you can watch all those lovely images unfold while hearing–in his own words–what the civil rights icon actually thought about car commercials. And the people who make them.

And you know, before you know it, you are just buying that stuff?

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