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Why I was heartened -- not outraged -- by Ram's MLK Super Bowl ad

Ram's use of Martin Luther King Jr.'s ode to service in its Super Bowl spot quickly became one of the more polarizing ads in recent memory, judging from public backlash.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, ad agency Highdive and the licensor of King's estate, Intellectual Properties Management, have been lambasted in comments sections across the Web, on social media and even in a scathing New York Times editorial.

But is this mass public flogging deserved?

Critics say the ad is offensive to MLK's legacy. They consider it a tone-deaf display that takes the civil rights icon's words out of context in an effort to sell a few pickups.

To hear them tell it, it was a heinous act.

I take a different view.

I first saw the spot a few hours before the game and outrage was the furthest thing from my mind.

I didn't think, "FCA should be ashamed of itself for using the words of my idol in this way!"

I wasn't angry or disgusted. I didn't immediately tune out the message. And I definitely didn't prepare my fingers for a vengeful Twitter barrage aimed at FCA.

I was grateful.

I had never heard this MLK passage, and was encouraged by the words. I have no gripes with FCA trying to find a connection point to such a towering figure whose sacrifices have made my life so much easier than previous generations of African-Americans.

In fact, I was heartened by the attempt to fuse the service mindset MLK spoke of with the daily heroics of Ram owners who serve their communities. The powerful images of the Ram 1500 being used as a tool of that service brought the point home for me.

In my opinion, the framing of MLK's message in these lines was appropriate. I understand what FCA was trying to do, so I won't feign outrage to join the crowd.

The spot was a well-meaning attempt to not simply run a Super Bowl commercial, but to put a cultural stake in the ground that would be remembered for years to come.

FCA tried this before with the gritty "Halftime in America" spot starring Clint Eastwood in 2012 and the "Born of Fire" two-minute ad in 2011 featuring rapper Eminem. Both spots drew inspiration from the resilience of Detroit and the auto industry after the Great Recession, along with the automaker's own emergence from bankruptcy in 2009.

So I was shocked when I saw the controversy building after the game.

The argument is that when taken in totality, MLK's sermon was a warning against the excesses of life. He said that many have a burning desire to be first, or what he called a "drum major instinct" that influences people to buy homes and vehicles they really can't afford in a constant show of one-upmanship.

He even name-dropped Chrysler at one point, referring to its cars as being among the products that some people overexert themselves to buy. King also spoke in the same sermon of smooth-talking advertisers, who tell consumers they have to drive a particular type of car "to make your neighbors envious."

I listened to the entire sermon for the first time last night and understand the criticism. But King's points around excess and sly advertising don't cancel out the larger message around serving others that he was building up to later in the sermon.

FCA should be commended for trying to create an uplifting spot during a tense time in the country's history. I've tried, but I simply can't see the drawbacks of using the Super Bowl to project MLK's words to more than 100 million people. Especially when some, like me, had never heard those words before.

MLK crafted a legacy around service of others, and FCA didn't come close to stepping on that.

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com -- Follow Vince on Twitter: @VinceBond86

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