So, Is This VW Superbowl Commercial Racist?

I’ve watched the commercial going on 10 times and I just don’t get why Midwest man has a Jamaican accent.
Publish date:
January 30, 2013

I’m confused. About a lot of things, but let’s start with the first one.

I thought Super Bowl ads aired during the um, actual Super Bowl. It’s always been a time-honored tradition for those who don’t actually watch the game to pay attention during the breaks to see the shiny expensive and supposed-to-be-funny new ads that will interrupt our favorite TV shows for the next few months. But alas, times have changed.

German car company Volkswagen has already released its Super Bowl commercial ahead of this Sunday’s game, and it’s either cracking people up or pissing them off -- no in between.

The ad features a white company-man type who’s suddenly picked up a pretty decent Jamaican accent and encourages his co-workers to “Turn de frown, the other way around.” In response to his boss’s announcement of dismal performance numbers, Midwest man cheerily pipes in, “You know what this room needs? A smile. Who wanna come with I?”

He, his white boss, and an Asian co-worker pile into a VW Beetle and suddenly everyone’s happy… and speaking with a Jamaican accent, too. The commercial closes by announcing, “That’s the power of German engineering.”

Unsurprisingly, plenty of people took issue with the white guy and his random Jamaican accent. Christopher John Farley of the Wall Street Journal equated it with being “Jar Jar Binks-ish." The New York Times's Charles Blow called the accent "like blackface with voices." And on The Today Show, "ad expert" Barbara Lippert, from just cut to the chase, declaring, "This is so racist."

Volkswagen’s Chief Marketing Officer Tim Mahoney defended the ad on CNN: "We did our homework to make sure we weren't offensive so we did some research to make sure we didn't go in a direction we didn't want to go." Mahoney also explained that the VW marketers talked to “ about 100 Jamaicans” as a sort of check and balance to make sure they didn’t go left.

Um… is that kinda liking a white woman asking a Black friend if it’s OK to call something “ghetto”? I’m not sure.

To Volkswagen’s credit, not everyone thinks the ad is racist. Soledad O’Brien likes the ad. And notably, so did many of the Jamaican men and women I tweeted with about it this morning.

“It is not pejorative; highlights infectious goodness of ire vibes,” said one follower, who actually reflects what seems to be most consumers’ reaction. The critics and the experts seem more offended than everyone else.

Another follower added, “I'm Jamaican and the consensus between friends and family is we all think it's funny and shows the true spirit of Jamaicans...” And yet another also found the hub-bub overblown. “We were depicted in good light. I’m fine,” she tweeted. “Now if he opened the elevator and pure ganja smoke spilled out, then yes, racist.”

I’m stuck somewhere in the middle here. I don’t find it racist or funny, just… odd.

I’ve watched the commercial going on 10 times and I just don’t get why Midwest man has a Jamaican accent. If it was a commercial for Jamaica tourism, I’d get it. An ad for Jamaican cars? No problem. (See what I did there?)

And maybe this is me thinking too hard, but I don’t get why driving/riding in/owning a German car would inspire an American to speak like a Jamaican. Shouldn’t the German car inspire happy users to speak well, German?

Maybe it’s just me.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk