Racism and the new Volkswagen Super Bowl ad

30 Jan

The new Volkswagen Super Bowl ad, “Come On, Get Happy!” which previewed this week in advance of the game, has ignited an online shit-storm around our favourite advertising hot button issue – racism.

Watch the commercial and then let’s talk.


The charges here are that this is a stereotyped view of Jamaicans, which portrays them as happy-go-lucky simpletons. Critics suggest that white people mimicking black people is “insensitive and offensive”.

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I’m all for healthy debate around racism in advertising. But with comments like those, it’s a wonder businesses even have the nerve to advertise in the first place. Someone, somewhere, is going to be all over your case no matter what you do.

This ad does not portray Jamaicans in a poor light, quite the contrary. It offers a view of Jamaicans as being the light of the planet. Has there ever been a more positive depiction of any nationality in advertising?

But I’m a white guy and I will get knocked for being insensitive to the people who are actually affected by the portrayal.

Like this Jamaican woman quoted in the National Post: “It certainly caught the spirit of Jamaican people. We are a happy, positive people, and I believe the commercial was made in a very positive manner to capture the essence of Jamaica!”

Lawyers and human rights groups, line up to the left.

Have a view, supportive or contrary? Please do share it. All are respected on this blog.

There, I got through the entire post without saying “Irie, mon!” once.

I wanted to avoid the backlash.



14 Responses to “Racism and the new Volkswagen Super Bowl ad”

  1. Louisa January 30, 2013 at 7:29 am #

    Uhm… so a couple of questions.

    What if the actor were in black face?

    And are we to make of the Mailbu Rum campaign that gives uptight Western values to the islands?

    Hilarious right? Non? I just don’t know anymore?

    • Doug Brown January 30, 2013 at 7:36 am #

      Well, how would you feel if the actors were in black face? What did you think of the Rum commercial? That’s more interesting to me!

      • Louisa January 30, 2013 at 8:42 am #

        Ohhh… so you want me to weigh in? Ok I’ll give it a shot.

        I think both these ads are poking fun at being uptight and too serious. Worrying about being seconds late and hating Mondays is no way to look at the world. Volkswagen is trying to jar our sensibitlties by having a white dude speaking with that accent. Malibu Rum is jarring us with people being uptight for no reason. Both ads play on the stereotype that that accent goes with being easy going, light hearted and positive. And I think that’s OK. Yes it is a stereotype but that is not the same thing as being racist. It’s different. I don’t know why.
        I also think the Mailbu Rum campaign, there are several of these ads, is way more funny. The bus being late is really hilarious, because of the ridiculousness of the situation.

        So what do you think the reaction would be to an ad for a cancer treatment centre that says, in that accent, “My child was just diagnost with cancer man, but it’s all good because we are going to X Cancer Centre”?
        Do Jamacian’s not have bad times, feel suffering, cry. Of course they do. I don’t really know what my point is here, I’m just exploring the question of that accent being associated with positive happy times. Is that a failing on our part because we only hear that accent being used in assocaition with easy going lightheartednes?. Is that the problem with stereotypes? Have I just answered my own question?

        Maybe now you’re sorry you asked me to elaborate.

        One last thing…that Volkwagen ad is not up to the usual Super Bowl hype they have been known to deliver. That much I know for sure.

  2. Doug Brown January 30, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Louisa – thank you for bravely offering your opinions! You hit on an interesting point around stereotypes versus racism. I think this is the crux of it. Stereotypes abound in advertising: the inept dad who can’t figure out how to wash a dish but can guzzle beer in front of the big screen TV while watching football; the smarter-than-the-adults kid who looks pityingly at his/her parents as they bumble through life; the chipper, house-proud wife who beams incessantly while reaching those hard-to-get places with a Swiffer duster…and on and on. They are constructs, not meant to be a reflection of reality. Caricatures if you will. There is affection in the portrayal.

    Then we have racism, which is an attempt to demean or mock or suggest inferiority. There is no affection in the portrayal. Quite the opposite.

    Forgive me if this is a simplistic view of racism, but I mean it in the context of the advertisements we are discussing.

    There are plenty of charges of racism in advertising, when what is more likely going on, as is the case here, is stereotyping. Of course there is good and bad stereotyping, and stereotyping that might be called racist. Intent seems to the differentiator.

    I too love the Malibu bus ad. It’s affectionate. Is it accurate? I have no idea. I don’t know many Jamaicans and have never gone. But I want to now! Can that be bad?

  3. Yukari Peerless January 30, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    Love this discussion. Racism is a complex issue and I don’t care to get too deep into it here, but saying “I love you because you are Japanese” is a part of racism, because you are making a decision based on the race. But is “Let’s be positive like Jamaican” racism statement? I think there is very fine like there and I call it not. I agree with you Doug though, this Volkswagen commercial is not really about racism, but about stereotyping, and I don’t particularly have problem with it. My only problem with it is same with Louisa – it’s not that funny of a commercial. I find the guy a bit annoying. Maybe I need to lighten up a bit? 😉

    • Doug Brown January 30, 2013 at 10:45 am #

      Good call Yukari. No you don’t have to lighten up – if it’s not funny, it’s not funny. Further, I think the real problem with the ad is poor branding. I saw it and then forgot who it was for – not usually an issue with Volkswagen advertising. Seems like it’s really just a 10 second gag masquerading as a bigger (and longer) idea.

  4. Tom Hudock January 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    The VW ad is missing that memorable quality, like you said Doug. Its cute but people expect much more from a Super Bowl ad. What I think is more interesting is the backlash. I thought racism was more about spreading hate. But Yukari’s comment shows how subtle many see it. The leap to the VW ad being racist seems a bit far. But I guess when it comes to social media, it’s easier to flame than consider. There are many examples of people flipping out on companies without thinking first. This just wasn’t a great ad from VW.

    “I don’t see race!” –Stephen Colbert

    • Doug Brown January 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

      I’m with you on all fronts Tom. So-so ad that has gotten far more publicity from the insinuation of something insensitive going on. Ultimately, VW will be cleared of all charges I hope, but the mediocrity of the idea will live on….

  5. Zeke Aasman January 30, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    In all honesty, even while watching this Volkswagen spot in consideration of Doug’s racism query, what struck me most was “wow, they redesigned the beetle!”. I’ve just returned from Volkswagen’s website to check it out. I’d have to say chalk one up on the success meter for this commercial.

    • Doug Brown January 30, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

      You know Zeke, I think Volkswagen would be thrilled to know that someone was actually paying attention to the car amidst all the social noise. And you went to their website. Mission accomplished.

  6. maureen January 30, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    So is Andrew Lincoln racist for speaking with an American accent while blowing the head off an assortment of zombies in Walking Dead? I mean the man is from London and speaks, quite clearly, with a mid-London accent when off camera/not blasting zombies with big ass guns.

    Isn’t it playing to a cultural stereotype to assume use of big guns and Americans go together? The bigger the problem, the bigger the caliber. I know many Americans who are peaceful and quite opposed to the use of guns. Of course, they will be what is called ‘fodder’, come the zombie apocalypse but that is beside the point.

    Also, this is assuming no person of caucasian origin who has grown up in Jamaica would speak with a Jamaican accent. Does the lack of melatonin in skin pigment automatically result in a vanillification of their accent?

    The point is an accent or a dialect is not the same thing as a race…whatever the hell “race” is. If a person is born in a certain country or even community in a large city, they will grow up speaking with the accent/dialect they hear around them. That is why there are men from Liverpool who speak scouse and look remarkably like their ancestors who were unloaded from slave ships there in the 18th century.

    Red Dwarf anyone?

    Far from thinking the ad is patronizing to Jamaicans, I’m insulted by the inference I cannot tell the difference between someone saying, ‘lighten up, enjoy life’ from a campaign ad for guys in white hoods with torches.

    Then again I’m just a girl so what do I know other than how to drape myself across the hood of a car or smile while swiffering around the house in pearls and a martini waiting for my man to come home.

    Now that’s a sobering image.

    • Doug Brown January 30, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

      There will always be people ready to stir the pot, especially in hyper race-sensitive North America. I am heartened that people stand up to this nonsense and dismiss it. There are real issues of racism out there that require our attention and this sort of muckraking is distracting. Advertisers are an easy target because they rarely fight back. Instead, fearing that the monster is much bigger than it really is, they retreat, remove and apologize. Volkswagen did none of that. Hooray!

      Good point about the distinction between lingo and race Ms. Blaseckie. And special bonus points to you – and a brand new car! – for bringing zombies into your pitch.

      Hope your man enjoyed his welcome-home-from-work-dear surprise. 🙂

  7. beloved brands February 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    I think the VW CMO should be fired. Not because of racism but rather 11.5 months of bad advertising, including this year’s super bowl and the campaign in the fall of 2012.

    As for the Jamaican accent. There’s high risk and low risk. Aside from the silly accent, this spot felt fairly low risk. There’s good and there is bad. This ad is bad. And low risk bad is the worst place to be. The only two reasons it broke through was the pre-hype it pushed the week before the super bowl and the controversy around the racism calls. But if this spot sat among the many great ones–Ram’s Farmer or Budweiser’s clydesdale–it would have fallen flat and destined for dullsville.

    VW has a history of amazing advertising from the bug ads of the early 1960s. And even the prior two super bowl ads with darth vader and the chasing dog were amazing. This one, feels boring. (5/10).

    Let’s hope VW turns it around, because those who are fans of great advertising….need it to be great.

    • Doug Brown February 11, 2013 at 4:42 am #

      It’s always disheartening when a great brand is communicated through mediocre advertising. It’s hard to know who to blame here: the agency for failing to deliver a breakthrough option, or the CMO for choosing a lemon from amongst better fare. We will likely never know.

      But such a drop in form is usually catalytic (assuming the auto maker is receptive to the public sentiment), so I predict a turnaround. And I hope for it too. Early prediction for Best Super Bowl Ad of 2014 -Volkswagen! Thanks for the comment Graham.

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