Here's Where That Ram Ad Really Got Martin Luther King Jr. Wrong

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Ram debuted an ad at the Super Bowl last night featuring the appropriated words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you haven’t seen it, it was bad and dumb, and has been derided pretty much across the board. But it’s not just the use of King’s words to sell trucks that got it wrong—it’s what the rest of that exact sermon said about car buying, and capitalism itself.

These parts of his legacy get overlooked today—often intentionally—but in addition to civil rights, King staunchly confronted the dual threats of the excesses of capitalism and militarism.


The words in the Ram ad are from a sermon King gave at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 4, 1968. Entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” it was broadly about the concepts of humility and modesty, about the toxic human drive to always be in front, to always be the star, to be the drum major in the marching band of life:

Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are “joiners.” You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression. So you get your groups, and they become the “Grand Patron,” and the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the “Most Worthy of the Most Worthy” of something. It is the drum major impulse and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.


The drum major instinct isn’t just limited to the idea of joining groups, however. It’s also tied to the drive of mass consumption. To get the newer and shinier thing, to get the bigger and better thing. Too often, to get the latest and greatest car, and the very people who advertise cars know you have this instinct, and they prey upon it:

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. (Make it plain) 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. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it.


It may seem a little on-the-nose, but King was warning against the very specific thing that Ram is doing now. And more than that,

But very seriously, it goes through life; the drum major instinct is real. (Yes) And you know what else it causes to happen? It often causes us to live above our means. (Make it plain) 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? (Amen) [laughter] You’ve seen people riding around in Cadillacs and Chryslers who don’t earn enough to have a good T-Model Ford. (Make it plain) But it feeds a repressed ego.

You know, economists tell us that your automobile should not cost more than half of your annual income. So if you make an income of five thousand dollars, your car shouldn’t cost more than about twenty-five hundred. That’s just good economics. And if it’s a family of two, and both members of the family make ten thousand dollars, they would have to make out with one car. That would be good economics, although it’s often inconvenient. But so often, haven’t you seen people making five thousand dollars a year and driving a car that costs six thousand? And they wonder why their ends never meet. [laughter] That’s a fact.

Now the economists also say that your house shouldn’t cost—if you’re buying a house, it shouldn’t cost more than twice your income. That’s based on the economy and how you would make ends meet. So, if you have an income of five thousand dollars, it’s kind of difficult in this society. But say it’s a family with an income of ten thousand dollars, the house shouldn’t cost much more than twenty thousand. Well, I’ve seen folk making ten thousand dollars, living in a forty- and fifty-thousand-dollar house. And you know they just barely make it. They get a check every month somewhere, and they owe all of that out before it comes in. Never have anything to put away for rainy days.

But now the problem is, it is the drum major instinct. And you know, you see people over and over again with the drum major instinct taking them over. And they just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. (Amen) They got to get this coat because this particular coat is a little better and a little better-looking than Mary’s coat. And I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. (Amen) I know a man who used to live in a thirty-five-thousand-dollar house. And other people started building thirty-five-thousand-dollar houses, so he built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house. And then somebody else built a seventy-five-thousand-dollar house, and he built a hundred-thousand-dollar house. And I don’t know where he’s going to end up if he’s going to live his life trying to keep up with the Joneses.


Emphasis mine up there.

King’s point was that people shouldn’t be looking to the newest, best car for fulfillment. It’s okay to have the car you have, to enjoy the car you have. It’s okay to have the life you have. What’s important is what you do with it, and how you help others. Materialistic pride divides humanity, makes you think you’re better than your neighbor. We shouldn’t be worried about having the latest and greatest pickup truck. Pride, greed, and the merchants that sell them are the things that ruin us.


And to top it off, later on in the speech, King reminded us where we stand as a country:

We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.


How so many have missed King’s legacy is tragic, and it’s something more should learn about.

But, here we are, talking about it now. Maybe Ram did something good after all. By being bad.