With the rise of DVR and on-demand programming, sporting events remain one of the last bastions of events that consumers watch live, commercials and all. When it comes to the Super Bowl—perhaps the biggest sporting event of the year—it’s now become a tradition for many who may not be interested in the game’s outcome to tune in for the commercials that undoubtedly become the basis of water cooler fodder on Monday.
With so many eyes on the game, the ad companies dish out big bucks for the audience reach. This year, the cost of a 30-second ad aired during the Super Bowl topped off at around $5 million. With such a heavy investment on the line for the coveted advertising space, companies ideally want their commercials to resonate positively. Sometimes, though, they miss the mark, as was the case with Ram Trucks’ commercial, which paired audio from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” to visuals focused on the service of others.
The brand really thought they had something incredible, but the commercial was met with criticism across social media almost immediately after airing Sunday night. Dubbed “tone-deaf,” users called out Ram, accusing the brand of exploiting MLK’s service-oriented words for corporate gain. The situation speaks volumes to the larger cultural narrative of our time that companies continue to repeat, which is using social activism to make a quick buck. And people don’t like it.
This is part of a larger trend. In the past year, similar offenses include Pepsi’s commercial showing model Kendall Jenner joining—what looks like—a Black Lives Matter movement to hand a Pepsi to a police officer, therein solving the issue of police brutality. Dove Soap, H&M, and Nivea, among others, also created PR nightmares for themselves in the past year with insensitive advertisements.
Given today’s political and social climate, companies need to be aware of racial and cultural sensitivities when it comes to the content they release and promote. Attention lies in the details. While intent of the message is usually driven in goodwill, subtleties that weren’t given enough consideration end up steering the direction of the entire narrative. There’s a fine line between companies supporting social activism and exploiting it. Towing a little too far in the latter direction can result in immense backlash for a number of reasons:
Social movements stem from years of injustice. The complexities of these issues can’t be justly covered in a minute-long advertisement trying to do nothing more than sell you something.
In response, consumers ask a very important question, which is the bane of missed-the-mark advertising: how did this get approved?
Advertising trickles down to the diversity of creative teams and their awareness of the issues facing our world today. Companies need to do everything they can in the conceptualization phase to ensure the intent of the message is what is received by the audience. While it’s never promised, companies can mitigate potential blips and all-out crises by focus testing their campaigns with diverse groups. At the very least, any time they put a campaign together, people in the approval chain need to be actively looking at it through multiple cultural lenses and interpreting it from positions outside of their own cultural worldviews.
Judging by their subpar response, it’s clear that Ram didn’t anticipate the backlash.
Ram pinned a tweet at the top of their Twitter page a day after the Super Bowl in response to the criticism. The tweet wasn’t posted until almost 24 hours after the commercial aired. Far from an apology that acknowledges that they misjudged their content, the statement doubles down and defends it, saying “representatives [of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.] were a very important part of the creative approval process every step of the way.” A good response to this type of backlash should typically dig companies out of a hole. This one dug Ram deeper.
What would have been far more effective would be a statement from the company itself acknowledging they understood why the commercial received the criticism that it did, apologizing for any misrepresentations or misunderstandings, and committing to work toward a better understanding of the issues at play in the future. The company needed to validate the concerns of those offended and express its humility as a brand by taking responsibility moving forward. In so doing, they may have been able to flip the story on its head and stop the fallout in its tracks.
Given the many societal sensitivities pervading our culture today, all companies need to proceed with caution in their advertising. As of this writing, the pinned tweet remains Ram’s only communication about the issue since the Super Bowl. We have yet to see whether Ram will sell more trucks as a result of the millions of dollars they paid for the spot, or whether the money was wasted as the backlash did more harm than good. The story will ultimately fade into the background, but what will be telling is how long Ram decides to leave it up and if they decide to acknowledge the issue again.
Taylor Jach contributed to this blog post.