Jamaican me crazy. Over the last few days, there has been a lot of talk in the mainstream media (and social media outlets) surrounding a particular advertisement slated to air during the largest viewed sporting event in America – The Super Bowl. The 60 second ad spot is from German auto-manufacturer, Volkswagen, and features an office worker attempting to spread cheer to his fellow colleagues during what appears to be a very low morale day at the office. Seems innocent enough. Right?
Well he speaks with a very thick and noticeable accent to which one might respond, “Nothing wrong with that. Lots of people have accents”.
It’s a fake ‘Jamaican’ accent, to which another may say,”Meh. Nothing new there. TV’s been there and done that”.
Well, he’s White.
“What?! Hold up. Stop the mutha’effin’ presses! He’s White!? Yuh gone too far now bwoy. Yuh gone too bloodclaat far!”
Annnnd he’s from Minnesota.
“Ah wah di rassclaat yuh ah sey to me!? Minnahsotah! Ah wha dat? Cho man, ah eediat ting dat”.
Now unless you haven’t been near a television or computer over the last three days, you may have missed it. So for those that have not seen the spot yet, and for those who would like a second, third or fourth look, here is the now infamous 2013 Volkswagen Jamaican Superbowl commercial.
Apparently this advertisement is creating quite a bit of stir in different circles as the controversy has garnered some media attention (or perhaps the media has generated this controversy albeit giving it so much attention. Who knows). Whether it’s deserved or not is up for debate, and ironically, that is exactly the crux of the entire debate. Is the attention and controversy warranted?
Well, there certainly are individuals that have taken offense to this advertisement. Among the most visible were two gentlemen: “New York Times” columnist Charles Blow and “Wall street Journal” editor Chris John Farley (originally of Jamaican origin). The two (while being featured on CNN) expressed on air their disapproval of the ad. Citing that the depiction was, “Jar Jar Binks’ish” and ”Blackface with voices”. In other words, it was a minstrel show performance, which such a characterization is essentially concluding that the ad is racist.
Upon seeing the advertisement and after replaying it several times, the only question I was left pondering was this: Where iss the racism these people are talking about?
Allow me to deconstruct the obvious:
In order for their accusation to be true, the ad would have needed to contain racist elements such as demeaning and harmful stereotypes. Perhaps even accompanied by displays of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. For example, had the main character walked around the office wearing a mesh shirt, a rasta hat while holding a spliff in one hand, a machete in the other and a coconut in his back pocket, then it would raise legitimate concerns. Instead, he is dressed in appropriate business attire, carries an optimistic disposition and engages fairly normally with coworkers. His interactions, body language and mannerisms are slightly upbeat to contrast his colleagues, but not over the top. Visually, there is nothing off putting or alarming about the ad, which brings us to the audio.
The character is speaking with an obviously borrowed accent, which is unexpected upon initial viewing, but certainly not anything out of the ordinary for the audience. After all, we see it all the time in television and film where non- (insert any ethnic group here) are cast to play roles of (insert a different ethnic group here) characters. This is a notoriously common practice in the industry. So being a non-Jamaican speaking with a Jamaican accent isn’t what is drawing the ire of those who claim they are offended.
The film ‘Cool Runnings’ and the ‘Hey Mon’ skit from ‘In Living Color’ (the latter playing heavily to stereotypes) did not conjure up outcries of racism despite -among other things- their merciless butchering of the accent. Then again those actors were all Black. Which means this present disapproval appears to point to the racial identity of the character in this commercial – a White man from Minnesota. And to those criticizing the ad, one can presume this is all the reason they need to consider this commercial racist.
The main culprit here is ignorance in its true meaning: lack of knowledge. Jamaica is roughly 92% Black with the remaining populace being of Asian, Indian, White and biracial ethnicities. Since White Jamaicans are very real, then why would it be racist for an advertisement to feature a White man speaking with a Jamaican accent, even if it is a faux one?
Now the ad is not completely devoid of stereotype. It actually does play upon a cultural stereotype of Jamaicans that serves as the premise for Volkswagen’s ad. This is the notion that no matter how dire the circumstances may become, Jamaicans will always carry a positive relaxed spirit and appreciation for life. Not only that, the ads also subtly suggests that having such an approach to life might not be such a bad idea after all. Sound familiar? It should. That very theme has been a staple in Jamaica’s tourism marketing campaign since the 1980’s.
In short, I find it difficult to imagine that any Jamaicans (particularly home grown Jamaicans) will take any offense to this at all. In fact, as this post is being composed, there appears to be an overwhelming support coming out of Jamaica in favor of the VW ad in question. So if Jamaica’s saying, “No problem” to this commercial, then who are we to say there is one?
So ladies and gentlemen, I now turn the floor over you. What are your thoughts on this controversy? It is a harmless comedic ad? Or is it as racist and insensitive as the criticism suggests? Should VW pull it from the SuperBowl? Do tell.
Title Update 01/15/19, Originally entitled, “Jamaican me Crazy: Is This Accent Phony, Funny or Offensive?”