The ad came after a tumultuous year for the N.F.L., which had a national spotlight placed on football players who sat or kneeled during the national anthem, a controversial gesture meant to draw attention to racial oppression and police brutality against black Americans. President Trump sharply criticized the players, which heightened some of the rhetoric surrounding the protests.
And while many advertisers release their ads before the game, Ram did not, which added to the social media maelstrom.
“I think it was well intentioned, but they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mr. Calkins said. “They did not release this ahead of time, so they went for the surprise. They got that, but at the same time, they now have a big problem with feedback and people being upset.”
Adding to the disconnect, the sermon in question, delivered exactly 50 years ago, touched on the danger of overspending on items like cars and discussed why people “are so often taken by advertisers.” That was not lost on the ad’s detractors.
The King Center said on Twitter that neither the organization nor the Rev. Bernice King, one of Dr. King’s daughters, is responsible for approving his “words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement.” It said that included the Super Bowl commercial.
Ram approached Dr. King’s estate about using his voice in the commercial, said Eric D. Tidwell, the managing director of Intellectual Properties Management, the licenser of the estate.
“Once the final creative was presented for approval, it was reviewed to ensure it met our standard integrity clearances,” Mr. Tidwell 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.”
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles U.S., which owns Ram, said in a statement that it was honored to work with the group to celebrate Dr. King’s words about the value of service.
“We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals, and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way,” the company said.
Susan Credle, global chief creative officer of the agency FCB, marveled at the speed of the online backlash around the ad and said it showed the risks of wading into social commentary, especially during an event like the Super Bowl.
“You get so crucified, so fast,” she said, adding, “We’re just in a place where we get called out on authenticity and people don’t want to be emotionally manipulated.”
Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer of the agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, was also surprised at how quickly the negative reaction coalesced online.
“The intent was right but maybe the timing was wrong,” she said.