Ethics in Advertising: How Far is Too Far?

By: Molly Kavanaugh

The Super Bowl is the advertising industry’s biggest stage of the year and with that, brands must put forward their best marketing strategies. As a staple of American culture, Super Bowl commercials attract audiences from all over the nation, and the world. Some brands disregard all ethical issues simply to make a statement with their commercial. There have been a number of advertisements throughout the years that have not translated positively to the public, and in result, have crashed and burned. With the recent passing of the 2020 Super Bowl commercials that have failed tragically have begun to resurface on platforms such as Twitter. On February 4th, 2018, a Super Bowl advertisement by Ram Trucks publicizing their brand new truck featured ethically questionable conduct. The poor display of advertising demonstrated inappropriate content and advertising techniques that caused the commercial to miss the mark completely. Ram Trucks used the slogan “Ram Built To Serve,” and compared Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon to buying a Ram truck in order to serve the greater good of the world. Since King was not alive to approve this advertisement, an ethical dilemma arose. By marketing their brand using King’s sermon, which affected so many people around the world, Ram Trucks crossed a line between honest advertising and sleazy advertising. This caused the message of the advertisement to be unclear and therefore, create an ethical dilemma. 

Ram Trucks quickly responded to defend their actions by stating that they had worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s estate, which manages all of his intellectual property, including his speeches. Although King’s family, including his own daughter, have stated that they did not allow for the use of King’s voice in this advertisement, Ram Trucks went forward with the commercial. By attempting to sell trucks, using the wise words once pronounced by Martin Luther King Jr., Ram Trucks crossed some basic ethical boundaries in social media, merely to promote their product. 

So how far is too far to go in terms of what goes into a Super Bowl commercial? Is it ok for brands to combine both the good and the bad to promote their products or company? 

And was Ram Trucks in the wrong ethically by broadcasting this commercial, even though they had the rights to use King’s voice? 

In an advertising market as big as the Super Bowl, brands should be more careful in the content that they release to the public. By using simple ethical guidelines, brands can avoid confusion surrounding their advertisements and have a successful campaign rather than one that fails due to ethical issues.

This Article Has 5 Comments
  1. Michael Robelli says:

    I think that this is of ethical question, but we must look past possibly niche guidelines in order to be courageous. We must cater to the new generation of viewers, consumers, citizens, and inspire change. King is the manifestation of influence, and although his voice and all of those externalities may be of question, I think this is ethical. It is made to inspire social good among listeners, and that is not of insensitive or corrupt intent.

  2. Miranda Menard says:

    Great questions! I was thinning similar things when I initially saw the commercial during the Super Bowl. From where I stand, this was inappropriate. The biggest reason I saw this, and similar situation as being inappropriate is because the brand, in this case Ram, is using someone to build their own clout without permission and for a brand/product that may not truly align with the persons thoughts they are using. We do not know if MLK Jr would have approved this or not, but knowing what he stood for and who his audience is, I do not think the two brands would mesh. Further, Ram saying that they had approval and his daughter saying no, shows that Ram went too far.

  3. Bridget Kraus says:

    This is a great topic that is definitely worth discussing further. Since the brand, Ram, did not get an okay on the use of MLK Jr’s voice, I don’t believe it was ethical on their part. It can be seen as offensive and something that Ram just thought about lightly, not paying attention to repercussions. It is unknown what MLK Jr would react to the ad, but it seemed to go against what he preached. Also, the fact his daughter did not approve of the commercial makes it more unethical. It was overall not a good move on Ram’s part.

  4. Mary Edman says:

    I would have to agree with some of the above comments that because they received approval from the MLK estate I don’t think it is an ethical issue, however I do think it can cross the line into sleazy because MLK’s daughter states that they did not grant them access to using his voice. The estate has the intellectual property rights to his speeches but not the voice. Ram Truck should have thought through it a little more in terms of the audience they were trying to reach and what kind of repercussions could be possible if they didn’t handle it properly. There are certain topics and people in American history that can bring forth some heated discussion if not handled properly. I think Ram truck toed the line between sleazy and ethical.

  5. Tyler Lima says:

    Hi Molly,
    This blog is very well written; well done. In answering your second question about whether Ram Trucks was in the wrong to use King’s voice, I think they were. To use an individual’s speech who has passed is a risky move because it is unlikely that the speech aligns perfectly with the message a company is trying to get out and it is impossible for the individual to approve of the message. Furthermore, I don’t understand why Ram Trucks would follow through with the commercial after King’s daughter disapproved of them using his voice.

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