In Super Bowl ads, a play for values and a contentious MLK message

AFP
Advertisers tried to play up American values and not fumble the ball during Sunday's Super Bowl, yet one waded into controversy by using the voice of the late Martin Luther King.
AFP

Advertisers tried to play up American values and not fumble the ball during Sunday’s Super Bowl, yet one waded into controversy by using the voice of the late Martin Luther King.

In the biggest US television advertising event of the year, most spots featured humor, celebrities and a feel-good message, steering clear of a politically divisive environment.

A surprise came with the words of slain civil rights leader King in an ad for Dodge Ram, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, where he is heard saying, “We recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be the servant.”

The “Built to Serve” ad drawing on a sermon by King sought to highlight community service but it sparked an outcry over the use of King’s legacy.

“You took a very powerful moment in time and you tried to reappropriate that for the message of selling cars,” said Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University who works on a Super Bowl ad rating project and who called the ad “a mistake.”

On Twitter, one user said, “Who knew MLK was talking about a Dodge Ram? Here I thought he was talking about equality.”

Historian Michael Beschloss tweeted, “Martin Luther King also advised people not to spend too much money on their cars.”

The King Center, which maintains archives of the civil rights leader, said in a tweet that neither the center nor King’s daughter Bernice had approved the use of the sermon for commercial purposes.

But a statement by the manager of King’s estate, Eric Tidwell, said the use was authorized to recognize the “Ram Nation volunteers and their efforts” in public service.

“We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others,” Tidwell said in an email.

- Unifying themes -

Many of the Super Bowl ads sought to focus on social themes without being political.

Budweiser promoted its canned water for disaster relief, Toyota showcased the Paralympics and T-Mobile showed babies of various races in a message about equality.

Charles Taylor, a Villanova University marketing professor who studies super Bowl ads, said he estimated nearly one in four ads mentioned a “unifying social theme,” a far higher percentage than in the past.

Taylor said Toyota “was a clear winner with its ads focused on unity and social values” by telling the story of Paralympic medalist Lauren Woolstencroft, who was born without legs below the knee.

On the humorous side, Taylor said the “fire and ice” spot with Morgan Freeman and “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage for Mountain Dew and Doritos also appeared to score well.

“Everyone seemed to love that,” he said.

- Risky plays avoided -

Funny ads were plentiful: Actor Danny DeVito sprung to life as an M&M, and NFL stars Eli Manning and Odell Beckham gave an awkward reprise of a scene from the film “Dirty Dancing” in a promotion for the sport.

But marketers appeared to steer clear of politics or overt sexuality, given a divisive atmosphere in politics and the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.

“This was a relatively safe year for advertising,” said Rucker.

“Brands didn’t take risks. I think they toned down sexuality.”

Rucker said Amazon’s ad, “Alexa Loses Her Voice,” featuring CEO Jeff Bezos and celebrities Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Hopkins and Rebel Wilson replacing the voice of the digital assistant, appeared to be a hit.

“Amazon used celebrities to drive home the message of what Alexa does,” he said.

Super Bowl ads cost an estimated $5 million for 30 seconds but the event is likely the only one with an audience of more than 100 million people.

For advertisers, “a Super Bowl ad is absolutely worth it” according to Taylor, who said it can “boost brand equity and possibly sales.. but it has to be a good ad.”

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