An advertisement during Super Bowl LII featured a sermon from Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on February 4, 1968, exactly fifty years ago. It is known as the “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. This was the portion featured in the ad:
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness… by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve… You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
And, apparently, you need a Ram truck. The speech was used in an ad selling pickups.
Most of the sermon, of course, was not included in the ad. Another part of the same sermon is literally a criticism of car advertisements, explaining that they exploit “a repressed ego.”
Now the presence of this instinct 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…
It often causes us to live above our means. It’s nothing but the drum major instinct. Do you ever see people buy cars that they can’t even begin to buy in terms of their income? You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. But it feeds a repressed ego.
Toward the end of his talk, delivered just two months before he was assassinated, King imagined the eulogy at his funeral.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
He did not say: Buy a truck. It was, in fact, a critique of advertisements that claim that buying a truck is a means toward spiritual fulfillment.
Using King’s legacy to sell pickups is obscene. King was a progressive — an advocate for the poor and a critic of the excesses of capitalism.
“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” King said in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board on March 30, 1967.
King discussed his concerns about capitalism further in an August 16, 1967 speech to the SCLC:
There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.
As of 2016, there are still 40.6 million people living below the poverty line. They cannot afford a Ram truck, which costs over $50,000.
This story has been updated to include more detail from Martin Luther King Jr.’s original sermon.