Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the guiding light that shaped western society was a underlying faith in a divine, fundamental truth. That if we strive to peel back the layers of the world around us, there’s something unshakeable to be found. If you think about it, he was right. Art, religion and science are all based in the pursuit of this fundamental truth. I’ve come to understand that advertising, at its best, follows the same pattern.
Advertisements resonate with audiences when they expose something profound to the viewer. They spell out a reason why the viewer should care and buy the product, whether through an emotional connection or a logical one.
The Campbell’s chicken noodle soup commercial with the snowman melting into a happy child reminds me of how I felt as a kid when I’d come in from the cold and my mom would have a bowl ready for me. It fills me with nostalgia. Or more recently, this Southwest Airlines commercial comes to mind. It shows a high school basketball coach vowing not to return home until after his team clinches the championship win, only to immediately cut to shots of a disappointed team. It demonstrates a funny, yet relatable scenario to which the product is a solution.
What compels me to write this blog is my disgust for the Ram Trucks commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. We witnessed footage of trucks and their drivers set to a voice recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where he talks about the definition of greatness and service to others.
So why does this ad that features an inspiring speech from one of the greatest people in our country’s history make my skin crawl? BECAUSE IT’S A RAM TRUCKS COMMERCIAL! Just like this Pepsi ad, the creators forgot a fundamental truth: These sensitive subjects have nothing to do with their brands.
Their brands didn’t take a stand against an injustice. They didn’t expose a problem and call for a solution. They took real issues, championed by other individuals and organizations, and drew a false moral equivalence.
The shape of our modern society came at the cost of Dr. King’s blood and the Civil Rights Movement he led. But the prejudices they fought against still exist today. I could pull up headline after headline of racially motivated violence, yet Ram approached this sensitive subject matter as a throwback to a long-healed time.
That’s why viewers were immediately put off. The spot did the opposite of expose truth. It was contrived, and everyone knew it.
We tell stories in advertising. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and his message are too important to manipulate. His life was devoted to truth, and the fundamental truth that Ram’s Super Bowl commercial exposed was much simpler: It’s just a truck.