William Bernbach, a titan of Madison Avenue who died in 1982, said, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” The spinmeisters for Ram trucks must have taken Mr. Bernbach’s admonition to heart. With a Super Bowl commercial on Sunday that used as its soundtrack a sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years earlier to the day, they got the notice they wanted. Much of the reaction, though, amounted to a richly deserved thumbs-down.

The sermon was Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech, given in Atlanta in 1968 two months before his assassination. Everybody, he said, had this instinct — “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” But it had to be harnessed, he said as he went on to equate greatness with service to others. Ostensibly, the Ram commercial was an appeal for people to serve. But who’s kidding whom? The goal was to sell trucks, with Dr. King’s voice as pitchman.

The sheer crassness led to instant condemnation on social media, including speculation about what might be next — maybe trotting out James Baldwin to hawk “The Firestone Next Time”? Critics were hardly mollified by word that Ram had the blessing of Intellectual Properties Management, the licenser of Dr. King’s estate. The estate has not always been his staunchest guardian against posthumous commercialization.

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