Driving Off The Mountaintop: How Dodge Ram Trucks Missed the Mark

It’s the first Sunday in February, meaning that Americans, all across the country, have gathered in bars and living rooms to watch the annual most preeminent event in US television, the Super Bowl. While the game alone garners its share of anticipation and excitement, the commercial breaks in the game have become an event all their own, as many viewers look forward to seeing what creative approaches their favorite brands take to advertise their products. Companies spend millions of dollars on these spots in hopes that their message point lands well with the nation’s largest and most diverse viewing audience. Some commercials succeed, some land with apathy, and others fail… horribly. This year, Dodge Ram Trucks completely missed their mark.

Ram Trucks’ commercial predicated on the slogan “Built to Serve.” The commercial showed people helping each other in various situations, as a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was spoken over a dramatic musical score. Sound good, right? Well, not quite. It’s obvious that the commercial was intended to be a socially charged, unifying message (to sell trucks), but the message point was received as being misguided and somewhat tone deaf. Almost immediately, social media erupted with criticism of the commercial, prompting Ram Trucks to defend their message, but at that point, it was already too late. How did the commercial fail? Ram “checked all of the boxes” on gauging the timing of their ad, measuring the climate in which the ad would be received, and used what seemed to be meaningful content. So what happened? Context happened.


Timing and Research Is Everything

Incorporating the most universally recognized figure of the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month seems like a logical and safe landing point for supplementing a message. In fact, the sermon used in the Ram ad was originally delivered on February 4th, 1968, which is exactly 50 years from the date of this year’s Super Bowl. However, the Ram team ignored a very important piece of Dr. King’s sermon. In the full speech, Dr. King specifically addresses not overspending on automobiles. Although the team had the timing right, they failed to do their research and understand the full context of Dr. King’s words.


Check The Climate
In today’s social, cultural, and political climate, using a message that is overly unifying often lands as being too neutral and unauthentic (at best). If you choose to go this route, you must be hyper-aware of what has the potential to dissuade, offend, or be found in bad taste to any sociocultural group represented in your audience. While going for a safe, unifying message seemed reasonable for Ram, it left many shaking their head. Examining the climate of your audience will go a long way to assure that your message point will be received in the way that it was intended.


Content Is King, But Context Can Kill

Content is always the “meat and potatoes” of a campaign, so ensuring that the content is relevant, meaningful, and relative is essential. Ram used images of people from different walks of life “serving” each other, which is consistent with Dr. King’s sermon about service and Ram’s own slogan. On the other hand, the ad appropriates the message of a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, who happens to be a Black man that was ultimately assassinated for his activism, yet did not include an equal mix of Black people in the creative. Next, Ram chose to release the ad, albeit on Super Bowl Sunday, during Black History Month, misconstruing the message of Dr. King’s sermon. That shows a lack of attention to context, which is ultimately why the commercial was received with such heavy criticism.


On the surface, it seemed as though Ram had the right formula for a successful campaign, yet they failed to consider the nuance around the centerpiece of their ad and how an audience would receive such a message. What seemed to be a safe bet, ultimately became a very expensive miss.

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