From The Scary Tales Of The Cognitive Dissonance Scale Files: The Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial

Perhaps more than any other field of endeavor, advertising depends on the Secret of the Cognitive Dissonance Scale. But the scale abused is a jealous and angry mistress, as Chrysler/ Fiat discovered when its Super Bowl for Ram Trucks turned into a public relations disaster.

It must have seemed so simple! Brainstorming about how to promote Ram Trucks while appealing to a divided the country during the iconic NFL game, after a year in which pro football in particular was torn by strife over players, mostly black, kneeling during the National Anthem to protest something or other, depending on which helmeted social justice warrior you asked, some rising, present-day Mad Man, cynical to the core, drew Dr. Festinger’s scale on a white board as he shouted, “Eureka!”

“It’s perfect!” the fuzzy cheeked, rising young advertising genius cried, marking the diagram with the red marker. “I know how we drag our truck up the scale!”

“Ram is a powerful truck and a symbol of toxic manhood, when everyone’s talking about how men, and especially white men, are the source of all that’s rotten in Denmark! Well, not Denmark, but here. You know what I mean. Anyway, for some of our clients we’ve been using little, scrawny, androgynous guys as spokesmen, like the geek Lou dreamed up for Petsmart.


He’s not scary, and you know he must be a Hillary voter. But come on: this dork probably drives a Smartcar. We can’t use someone like him to promote a truck. No, Fred, we can’t use a sexy female model, either, like we used to. Sexy models are now below zero on the scale. They’d pull our trucks DOWN. Oh, a lot of men would still secretly love this stuff like we used to do,

but now  their girl friends or wives or daughters would glare at them, and getting flack from women in the family is LOW on the scale. So sex is out. Sorry.

Now, the Petsmart geek does have a dog with him. Dogs are high on the scale, as we all know: Ralph, you were the one came up the ad with the Golden Retriever driving the Subaru, right?


Gold! But come on: kids and dogs have been done to death in Super Bowl ads. There will probably be all sorts of cute dog ads during the Super Bowl; there always are. [ Actually, there weren’t…]  So think: we want a man’s voice, a manly man, but one that doesn’t scream white male patriarchy or Harvey Weinstein.  We want someone the fans of those National Anthem protests and Black Lives Matter will have high on their Cognitive Dissonance Scale, so associating Ram Trucks with him will yank the trucks right up. We also want someone  the fans who were getting sick of political grandstanding when they wanted to watch a football game also admire, someone who knew how and why to protest. And, at the same time, we want Ram to look socially conscious—you know, “woke.”

One figure, and only one, will do all that, from a position so high on the scale that we can’t lose! Martin Luther King! Heck, all of those blue collar workers just got a day off because of the guy; it’s fresh on their minds. They love him! A day-off pulls MLK right up the scale himself!

And look: I did some googling, and found this from some speech he gave: “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Great stuff, right? There’s “greatness: for the MAGA crowd, and “love,” which is Scale magic, and we can fill the ad with heartwarming scenes—with kids!

—all leading up to our Dodge Trucks theme, ‘Ram trucks are built to serve‘!

The cheering in the meeting room was deafening.


Today, that once rising ad exec starts his new job at Taco Bell.

Martin Luther King didn’t pull Dodge Trucks up the scale. Cynical exploitation of a civil rights icon and turning a black martyr into Morgan Freeman’s competition as a rival pitch man (Morgan was doing Mountain Dew) is so low on the Cognitive Dissonance Scale that it pulled the product’s rating right through the floor.

This is rank incompetence. If you are going to try to exploit the image and words of a dead hero, at least learn something about him. At the time of his death, King was getting ready to make a push for socialist reforms, which meant attacking capitalism. You also should read the whole speech you are cherry picking from; you can bet someone else will. Here’s a section from that same speech:

“…we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. … I got to drive this car because it’s something about this car that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car. … I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America.”

This means that using King’s voice and words to appear to endorse a truck ad seen by millions is a lie.

The King family’s greed and poor stewardship of King’s image also shares some of the blame for the fiasco. The King Center quickly went on  Twitter to say that neither the organization nor the Rev. Bernice King, one of Dr. King’s daughters, was responsible for approving the offensive Super Bowl commercial. That’s not exactly true. Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, the licenser for the estate, said that Ram, as it must, came to them for permission to use King’s name, voice and words. “Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances,” he said in a statement. “We found that the overall message of the ad embodied Dr. King’s philosophy that true greatness is achieved by serving others.”

Obviously the King family did not take proper steps to ensure that those who handle the family profit center depending on commercial uses of Dr. King’s legacy understand the difference between embodying Dr. King’s philosophy and cynically distorting it to sell stuff. Intellectual Properties Management is paid to take the PR hit, but I’d be willing to bet that such a high profile use of King was approved by the family itself. After all, King isn’t pulled down the scale by a foolish commercial. The controversy might even help King’s image, by sending people to read the speech. Maybe the King family knew the commercial would burn Ram, but was willing to take their fee and watch the fun, as the Cognitive Dissonance Scale wreaked its terrible vengeance on those who would abuse its power.

17 thoughts on “From The Scary Tales Of The Cognitive Dissonance Scale Files: The Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial

  1. I was watching it with my wife (I know, I know). As soon as that mlk Dodge Ram commercial aired, I turned to her and said “oh oh.”

  2. I would have thought that these ads would be shown to focus groups and vetted to death. I wonder if there are too many who were just afraid to speak the truth for fear of being labelled.

    Kinda reminds me of the Audi ad last year. I think some advertisers think their bleepdontstink when it clearly does.

  3. I missed the MLK ad completely and got it accidentally when I was pulling the Viking ad up. (I love that one) This cherry picking to distort for politics or ads makes me feel ill. Exploitation so bad it makes any earnest people look complicit.

    I watched the Puppy bowl and read some fiction,but some years groups would play poker or board games.

  4. Advertising is trickery, plain and simple. It cloys, it gets into your mind through the backdoor while you are fixed on some sparkle, some twinkle, hope, longing or anxiety.

    There is a Greek word metis: ‘wily intelligence’. From ‘Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society’ by Marcel Detienne and JP Vernant:

    “There is no doubt that metis is a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behavior which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic …”

    Think cunning in a battle with believing.

    To observe the Dodge commercial is to focus on an immediate event. But to understand the context in which supreme deception and trickery has become so insinuated into the landscape of a nation, into the patterns of the mind, into the structure of perception, that requires some separation: to see from above and from outside. To ‘take the Red Pill’ is in some sense an adventure through ingesting an antidote against the deceptive mirage of the present. It is a spiritual and interpretive endeavor.

    Thousands of different narratives having been spun, now entengle with each other into a sticky, confusing web. Nowhere has this been caried out with such encompassing intensity as in America. The most heavily propagandized nation in the world.

    Now these narratives cannot be separated out. But they turn against each other, they consume each other. It’s all going to have to be revised.

    The subject simply looks on as the images pass on the walls of the cave. His head is fastened to his seat and he can’t turn his head from the screen, he can’t avert his eyes. He has to watch. But he has no ability to understand what he sees and why he sees it.

    Take a knee for Chrysler while singing ‘My Country Tis of Thee…’

  5. I must be lost because I really have no issues with this commercial. It was interesting to hear MLK in his own voice, and orating something that is not overdone in our culture. The message was inspiring, and it was a call to action to become a better part of your community and promoting service. The truck parts were not even over the top, just a flash here and there.

    Should we all just forget about MLK? I mean, he is long dead, and you do not hear too much clamor to hear what he had to say, save the once a year I have a dream rehash for a couple of minutes on TV. Is that his legacy?

    Should we not embrace our heroes in pop culture? What if Eminem made a song that has some of MLK’s words in it? Would that be ok?

    I just feel like everyone is jumping the shark, I thought the commercial was nice, and it gives us all a chance to talk about the legacy of MLK on the anniversary oh his assassination.

    • Everything depends on how MLK is interpreted. Superficially, and if one is emotionally inclined, his message has a certain ring. Rhetorically it is very adept. It is also manipulative and devious.

      The bottom line is that he was a militant communist-socialist rather similar to Nelson Mandela. What Mandela oversaw in SA will with time, be brought to America and indeed we see the first initial stages. Few want to look into these facts though.

      Communism and Socialism are constructed on certain beliefs and ideas, yes, but they too are extremely rhetorical. You buy the product on the basis of sentiment and feelings, like being moved by a folk song and as Charles once said ‘the angels of your better nature’, but when the systems are established they generally tend to turn our very differently. Just look closely at what is happening outside the window!

      The rhetoric of MLK is one thing, and what this rhetoric has done and is doing now in the country is quite another. Movements like that of MLK begin within situations of genuine concern, but then they always seem to develop an ugly, power-hungry side, and they draw people into a destructive movement. In fact, this is the result of the rhetoric and the activism of MLK and people like him.

      I suggest that just as advertising hides its deceptive ‘metis’ under a veil of emotionally touching rhetoric, so too do we have been tricked and live in the outcome and the result of this emotionalism in the present. But it is self-righteous emotionalism that is used, cynically, to manipulate.

      The larger truth about MLK is that he was a powerful and accomplished social manipulator. Even his Christianity fits into a strange dynamic in Liberation Theology which, when analyzed closely, reveals the Marxist underpinnings. Marxist Pentecostal Radicalism!

      Now, today, masses and clusters of rhetorical narrative crash into each other. Out there in the world certainly but mostly inside people’s minds. It all needs to be sorted out, but who can do it?

    • I agree! I’m a fan of ads that tug at the ol’ heartstrings, even if, generally, except for ones specifically promoting charities or whatnot, I perceive the end goal is to elevate the involved brand.

      I also agree it was a little tone deaf to pick MLK’s speech because of the anti-capitalism sentiment expressed elsewhere in it. Still, I don’t generally disagree with the concept of using his words to make a feel-good call-to-service (and buy Dodge Rams) message more effective.

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