Finding God in a Bad Commercial

It’s been said that God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes even through a controversial Ram Truck commercial.

We’ve already mentioned that commercial Wednesday, of course. The manufacturer (or, rather, its advertising agency) put together an advertisement pairing video clips of its truck helping folks do good things with the words of a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon.

I get the instinct: Companies and corporate entities want to remind us that they’re not there just to sell us products and services. They care, man. They’ve got heart. They want to make the world a better place.

Feel-good, service-oriented, issue-resonant advertising has been quite the trend over the last few Super Bowls. Just this year, Budweiser reminded folks of all the water it donates to folks in need of times of crisis. Hyundai emphasized that every time you buy one of its cars, you might be helping to cure childhood cancer. T-Mobile plopped down a whole bunch of babies to tell us … something? Can’t really remember what, but I’m sure the company’s marketing folks intended it to be inspiring.

I’m sure Ram Trucks wanted to be inspiring, too. And I guess it was, in a sense: Its ads inspired a whole lot of folks to angrily tweet about using Martin Luther King to sell trucks. “Not sure MLK’s dream was to drive a Dodge Ram,” ItsTheReal tweeted.

Blowback was swift and severe, and I get that, too. It feels slimy to take such powerful words and turn them into an instrument for crass commercialization. And it was a bit ironic, too, given that King calls out advertisers in that very same sermon:

Now the presence of this instinct [to be a “joiner”] 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.

But here’s the thing: As I was “watching” the spot—one ear tuned to the television as I was answering an email or two—Dr. King’s words stopped me cold.

Fifty years ago, here’s what he said, and what I heard last Sunday:

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 … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … 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 you can be that servant.

Those words were part of his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” predicated on Mark 10. That message was itself an adaptation of a similar sermon given in 1952 by a white Methodist preacher by the name of J. Wallace Hamilton. (You can read the full text of King’s speech here, or listen to it here.)

The sermon, and especially those words, are beautiful. Moreover, they’re true. And if Ram Trucks hadn’t made such a crass decision to use them, I might never have heard them.

You can be that servant.

In his original sermon, King launches directly from those words into a retelling of the life and death of Jesus, the ultimate servant. “All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life,” King tells us. He reminds us that Jesus was a servant. And that Jesus asks us to be the same.

To be a servant, it seems to me, lies near the heart of the Christian faith. Granted, we don’t own exclusive rights to servanthood, and if people of all religious stripes bought into this notion of selflessness, to serve others as best we all can, what a better, brighter world it would be. But for Christians, servanthood is the key—the key to our faith’s power and persuasiveness in a cynical, desperately hurting world.

None of that has anything to do with buying a Ram Truck, of course. But for me, the whole flap is a reminder of something else important: We can find truth, beauty and hope in the most unexpected places. We can see something in a shop window and be reminded, somehow, of God’s transcendence. We can be talking to a friend, and something she says will suddenly remind us of a Scripture, or help us think of it in a new light, even though our conversation had nothing to do with that Scripture. And sometimes, I think we can find that truth while watching a movie. Listening to a song. God can hide messages in the unregarded nooks of our lives, and sometimes they catch us unawares.

None of this is to excuse Ram Trucks for its obvious misstep. But even so, I’m grateful the company made such a misstep. And who knows? Maybe the ad drove others, as it did me, to King’s original message. Maybe they’ll read this:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

That’d be a nice thing for folks to say about us, too, wouldn’t it?

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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