In the 60-second spot aired during the Super Bowl, viewers see images of the rugged Ram pickup along with people working, helping others or hugging loved ones.
The images are set against audio of "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta exactly 50 years ago, in which he says that in order to be "great" and to serve the greater good, "you only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love."
Missing from the Ram ad are the slain civil rights leader's words in the same speech guarding against commercialism: "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 advertisers do it."
The irony is not lost on the throngs of critics who took to social media to question how Fiat Chrysler could use King's sermon to sell trucks.
"It should have been used for something more important — the things that are going on in America now," said Samantha Williams, 26, while visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta.
An FCA spokeswoman said the company intended to inspire people with King's words that everyone can be great by serving others. FCA, she said, knows that Ram truck owners often volunteer to use trucks for charitable work, and the ad was intended to reinforce their service.
"It was selling the message of serving in your community, that was the message," she said.
Unfortunately for FCA, not everyone got that message.
Chris Allieri, founder of the New York-based public relations agency Mulberry & Astor, said corporations often use the Super Bowl to showcase their corporate ethos — but Fiat Chrysler went too far.
"Let's not fool ourselves ... this is about branding and selling products," Allieri said. "In an attempt to unite us, in increasingly divisive times, behind the words of a great American, it fell flat because it seems to co-opt and trivialize his monumental words to that of ad copy."
Allieri said it was difficult for him to imagine any scenario where using King's legacy to sell products would not cause a backlash.
"Dr. King's words should never be confused with ad copy. To me it really misses the mark," Allieri said. "If you are a marketer, using the words of Dr. King to sell your products is a hard no. There is no way I could see defending this."
FCA's spokeswoman said the company's advertising agency approached the King estate to get licensing to use words from "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon and was referred to Intellectual Properties Management Inc., which manages King's estate. Both his estate and the management firm were involved in every step of the ad, she said.
"The message of our spot and the quotes that were used were all about service and serving," the spokeswoman said. "That's something the estate felt comfortable with granting permission for us to use."
A similar debate was sparked nearly two decades ago when Telecom Alcatel used King's "I Have a Dream" speech in an ad that was also approved by IPM. That ad shows King giving his most famous speech to an empty Mall in Washington D.C. to illustrate the idea that "before you can touch, you must first connect."
Eric Tidwell, managing director of IPM, confirmed that it granted FCA permission and said in an email that the overall message of Ram Truck's "Built To Serve" ad embodies King's philosophy on serving others.
Business records filed with the Georgia secretary of state's office show that Dexter Scott King, one of the late King's children, is chief executive of IPM. It wasn't immediately clear Monday whether the younger King would have had to sign off on the use of his father's sermon or whether someone else within one of those companies would have been authorized to do so.
Dexter Scott King and his siblings Bernice King and Martin Luther King III are the sole shareholders and directors of the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., Inc. Dexter is the estate's chief executive, records show.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, known as The King Center, was founded by Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife, Coretta Scott King, to carry on her husband's legacy. Bernice King is now the CEO of the center, located in Atlanta.
On Twitter, the King Center distanced itself from the Ram ad by noting that neither the center nor Bernice King "is the entity that approves the use of #MLK's words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight's @Dodge #SuperBowl commercial." It also retweeted a YouTube clip of the civil rights leader's full sermon.
University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacchi disagrees with how the Ram truck ad is being interpreted.
"To suggest it was to sell automobiles is just crazy," he said. "That wasn't the purpose of the ad. I think that's important. We have to doff our cap to that ad and to the brand for doing it."
Despite the uproar, the ad has become exactly what any company wishes after spending millions of dollars to get it aired — a talker.
Wayne Gibson, 51, founder of a Los Angeles nonprofit that works with troubled youth, said his take from the commercial was that the automaker was saying "we're going to try to start serving and helping people and indoctrinate Dr. King's philosophy."
"You don't connect Dr. King with selling a product," Gibson said. "It's logical to think these people are trying to do something different than the regularly automakers."
Meanwhile, the Drum Major Institute, a nonprofit think tank and social activist group, put out a statement reminding the public of what King's original sermon was all about: "As we observe the 50th anniversary of this sermon and his tragic death, let us all honor that wish by recommitting to once and for all realize upon his dream that all of our brothers and sisters have the opportunity to live in the beloved community he gave his life for."
Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.