A Super Bowl Tale: When Social Good Goes Sideways

It was an exciting Sunday for lovers of NFL Football. The game played on the field delivered to fans around the world. In between the exciting plays, most companies opted for levity and humor in their Super Bowl ads over following last year's socially minded commercial breaks. One company forged their own path. Using the powerful and beautiful audio of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior's speech from fifty years ago that day, Chrysler attempted to inspire by showing people of all walks of life contributing to community peppered with images of the Dodge Ram truck.

Sadly for Chrysler, their 60-second spot backfired in a big way. There was an immediate backlash in the Twittersphere. Well-intentioned? Likely. Well-thought-out? Not so much.

How can companies avoid making costly mistakes with their advertising dollars?

  1. Know your current environment. What might have worked 10 years ago, won't work in today's racially charged atmosphere. With #BlackLivesMatter and some NFL players choosing to take the knee during the playing of the US National anthem, co-opting the legacy of MLK was at best tone deaf and at worst opportunistic.

  2. Know the context and meaning of the material you are using. The MLK speech that Chrysler chose to take an excerpt from actually talks ill of advertisements and buying:  "You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion...they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction...In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car...And you know, before you know it, you're just buying that stuff...That's the way the advertisers do it." -MLK, February 4, 1968I am certain that the team at Chrysler who put together this piece meant well, but they made the mistake of taking an excerpt and used it out of context. 

  3. Enlist expertise in pro-social messaging and cause marketing. Much of the time, it is difficult to take a step back and look at things from a different perspective when you are in the weeds of a project. Working with the same people, in the same company at a fast pace creates an echo chamber. Coupled with an Ad Agency whose expertise is creating commercials and you can have a recipe for disaster when you try and weave-in a socially responsible message. When it comes to companies using pro-social messaging or launching a cause marketing campaign, using third-party expertise will give you the critical thought you need.

  4. Be authentic. Should a company use a speech by MLK in their advertising to ultimately sell trucks or anything else? Given Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s aversion to capitalism, likely not. If Chrysler had strictly used the speech to show only the community programs they support without the clips and references to the Dodge Ram, it might have worked. However, in addition to this, they'd need verifiable evidence of the impact of their social responsibility. I took a look at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles 2016 corporate social responsibility report and it's light on the detail about their community contributions. Companies that CAN integrate pro-social messaging or launch an effective cause marketing campaign are those that are verifiably supporting the cause they are touting.

So, should companies jump into the pro-social fray? Absolutely, but with eyes wide open! It's easy to pick on ads or campaigns that flopped. It can be done well - very well. In our next post, we'll be providing examples of great campaigns like Bell Let's Talk along with best practices.

Are you wanting to take the plunge with your corporate social responsibility? Not sure where to start? Come back to learn more or contact the VortoVia team. We'll give your company the advice you need to do well AND do some good!


Are you a business, individual, or foundation that would like to be strategic about your giving, social responsibility, and impact? Or a charity that would like to innovate, scale and become fiscally sustainable? Not sure where to start or what to focus on? Contact Nicole and the VortoVia team for a consultation.