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Ram’s Martin Luther King Ad Got Panned. Was It Still a Success?

Is there any such thing as bad publicity?

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Super Bowl ad — the one that used a clip from a 1968 speech by Martin Luther King Jr. — generated widespread criticism for its commercial use of the civil rights leader. It’s also created millions of dollars in exposure for the Ram brand.

Produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, the 60-second spot promoted a volunteer initiative called “Ram Nation” and quoted King: “Recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Viewers quickly took to Twitter to slam the ad for commercializing King and stripping the context from a speech that had been critical of advertising’s effect on the black community. King’s daughter and the King Center, which maintains his archive, added fuel to the controversy by saying that they hadn’t been consulted about or approved the clip’s use. (The rights to King’s words and images are controlled by King’s estate, which is separate.)

But even the mostly negative commentary on Twitter generated more than $7 million in publicity, according to Eric Smallwood, of Apex Marketing, which measures the value of media placement and sponsorships. The ad quickly became one of the most-viewed videos on YouTube and featured prominently on television newscasts, generating an additional value already approaching $1 million, he said. NBC sold 30-second spots for more than $5 million.

Among younger viewers, the Ram commercial ranked 13th in popularity, said Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. “To think for a second that they didn’t know it was going to be controversial would be crazy,” Bernacchi said in an interview. “They didn’t just willy-nilly put this out there.”

The King estate reviewed and approved the ad, said Eric D. Tidwell, managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, Inc., the manager of King’s estate. “We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others,” he said in the statement. “Thus we decided to be a part of Ram’s ‘Built To Serve’ Super Bowl program.”

Fiat Chrysler stood by its ad. “We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way,” the company said in a statement.

The automaker has a history of buzzy recent Super Bowl commercials. A 2011 commercial featuring Detroit rapper Eminem was seen as relaunching the company after it emerged from a government bailout. A year later, an advertisement featuring Clint Eastwood trumpeted the rebirth of Detroit, which went through its own bankruptcy.

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