Is RACISM The Big Trend in Super Bowl Commercials This Year Or What?

It sure is great living here in post-race America! GO FOOTBALL!
Publish date:
January 31, 2013
racism, commercials

THAT’S RACIST! Oh good, now you’re paying attention.

Back when I was a wee lass idly roaming the mean streets of suburban Broward County, Florida, we were told -- I don’t remember by who, but it was obviously some authority figure since I remember it so strongly -- that should Stranger Danger even rear its creepy van-candy offering head and try to drag us to a shadowy (or in my case, lotion-applying) doom, we should not yell “HELP” because, well, people tend to ignore cries of help, because humanity is a species barren of care and empathy for its fellow beings.

Instead we were told to yell “FIRE” or even “RAPE” because these are words likely to make people turn and look. Which is, actually, kind of sick, but there you are.

I don’t know if “FIRE” or “RAPE” even work anymore to make people look. I would hope so, because I don't know what else is left. I guess you could still yell "THAT'S RACIST," because it sure seems like anytime somebody says it, everybody turns to see what's going on (and then probably to tell the person why it's NOT racist, whatever it is, and THEY'RE racist for calling it racist, ad nauseam).

Which brings us to these two commercials, due to be officially aired during this weekend’s Super Bowl, that are currently grabbing just that kind of attention.

The first is this Volkswagen ad (which was also thoroughly discussed on xoJane yesterday by Demetria L. Lucas and which I totally to my undying shame overlooked until after I'd written this -- I blame the flood) in which a doofy white guy goes to work on a Monday and spends the whole day encouraging his colleages to relax and be happy, all in a slight (but easily understandable to American ears) Jamaican Patois accent.

The response wasn't uniform at all; the commercial drew criticism from some folks, who called it out for exploiting a racist stereotype, and shrugs from others, who found it funny and cute. Then yesterday, the Jamaican government actually endorsed the commercial, calling it, “a perfect illustration of Jamaican culture's global reach and our uncharacteristic penchant to be happy even in challenging situations."

The Jamaican government -- and maybe even individual Jamaicans -- may be fine with it. We also can’t discount the reality that tourism represents over 50% of their foreign exchange earnings and supplies a quarter of all the jobs. Thus it’s not terribly surprising that the government would be quick to make clear that they don't have a problem with with ad.

But it’s also worth noting that Jamaican folks might not see this commercial as an explicitly racial thing, because while Jamaica is a majority Black country, it is also home to folks of many races, nearly all of whom will occasionally speak in the Patois of the Volkswagen commercial in casual interactions.

However, there is another perspective on this story, because as Demetria pointed out, the commercial is not a Jamaican commercial, nor is it advertising a Jamaican product. The commercial is made by a German car company for American audiences, and this is where things get complicated -- because while the reality of Jamaican culture may not be a racist stereotype, when filtered through the lens of American history and culture, things change.

The stereotype of the “happy darky” dates back to the US Civil War, and was spread via propaganda and other popular media to make the argument that slavery was a cool thing because the slaves were way enjoying their enslavement and oppression and inability to own property or have families or not be considered the property of a more worthy man or make basically any decisions affecting their lives. The premise was that Black folks were too intellectually stunted to be able to care for themselves, so slavery was actually doing them a favor by protecting them from the big complicated white man’s world.

It’s worth noting that slavery happened in Jamaica too -- in fact it happened in such numbers that by 1800 slaves outnumbered the colonizing white plantation owners twenty to one, and thus they began a series of uprisings that caused enough destruction that they eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the British Empire in 1834 -- while here in the US, President Lincoln would not issue the Emancipation Proclamation for another thirty years.

At any rate, the “happy darky” stereotype was a pervasive one, and adding to its horrors is the fact that these joyful slaves were often portrayed in media by white men in blackface who acted out the most extreme caricatures for a cheering audience, right up into the 1950s and 60s.

Fast forward a few decades to now, and we have a Volkswagen ad that some are calling “blackface with voices,” and conceptually that’s not off the mark -- the commercial exploits an American stereotype of a cheerful happy-go-lucky Jamaican and puts that character in the body of a white guy from Minnesota. This is supposed to be funny because, ha, he’s a white guy from Minnesota pretending to be Black (given that, for most Americans, Jamaicans who speak Patois must necessarily be Black, even though this isn’t true). White people who pretend to be Black are EXTRA SILLY, always.

Honestly, the whole premise skates uncomfortably close to the “happy darky” caricature for me.

But hey, Volkswagen’s not the only company catching racist hell for its Super Bowl ad. Now Coca-Cola has raised the ire of Muslim and Arab-American groups for its “Coke Chase” spot, in which a group of Arabs and camels (yes, really) wandering through the desert see a giant bottle of Coke glistening in the distance. Next three other groups -- some cowboys on horseback, a bunch of bizarre dystopian-future dudes in the vein of Mad Max, and a tour bus full of showgirls (at least I think they’re showgirls -- initially I thought they were drag queens) appear on the scene, all competing and chasing the bottle of Coke.

This ad has an interactive element in which viewers can vote to pick who will “win” the chase at the yet-to-be-seen conclusion (why they’re bothering, I have no idea -- the showgirls will win). The problem? The group of Arabs and their camels are not among the groups you can vote for. Which, I gotta say, is weird.

The criticism has been that this absence reinforces the American idea that Arabs are backward people yanking unwilling camels through a desert -- not real players in the big grownup world. Not including this group in the voting, even though we see them clearly competing in the ad, relegates them to being part of the landscape, a piece of the desert as inanimate as the sand itself, and thus it makes them caricatures instead of characters.

So here’s my question, though -- do you ever wonder if advertisers do racist shit just to make us look? Given that neither of these commercials are particularly earth-shattering examples of genius, is it possible that companies have become bored of the usual controversies and are now trying out racism as a viral-marketing technique?

I have a hard time believing that this is a conscious, pointed effort to be offensive; I think it’s more likely to be plain old unexamined casual racism resulting in some poorly considered ideas. Not that this makes it any more acceptable; this kind of casual, no-big-deal, why-are-you-so-sensitive racism is the backbone on which institutionalized oppressions rely.

So yeah, while the kneejerk reaction to these commercials may be that the criticism is overwrought and absurd, the deeper reality is that even hard to detect forms of racism -- stealthier ones than these even -- have a measureable effect on our culture and how we perceive people of different races and backgrounds. Intentional or not, I believe that’s always worth talking about.