Volkswagen Super Bowl ad accused of being racist

Volkswagen’s Super Bowl XLVII ad entry shows the positive effects of driving a VW. (The Washington Post)
January 29, 2013

Yah, mon. Da white bloke, he talk like dis. So, mon: Is it racist for him to speak dat way?

Volkswagen of America certainly didn’t think so when it created a one-minute commercial for Sunday’s Super Bowl. The commercial features a tall, white fellow — identified in the ad as a Minnesotan, to further emphasize the contrast — speaking like a no-worries Jamaican to cheer up his glum office mates.

“You know what dis room needs? A smile,” the pasty fellow tells his colleagues during a dreary meeting. “Who wanna come wit I?”

The conceit is supposed to tie in with Volkswagen’s new ad slogan, “Get in. Get Happy,” and the general notion that driving a VW can turn a crummy day into a sunny day.

Except some people think the cross-national (and potentially cross-racial) portrayal sounds a little racist.

When VW pre-released its upcoming Super Bowl spot, some critics called it racist. Volkwagen’s chief marketing officer answers those charges and tells us what he hopes the commercial conveys to its viewers. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

“Blackface with voices,” declared Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist, in an appearance on CNN just a few hours after Volkswagen released the spot Monday. Veteran ad critic Barbara Lippert, on the “Today” show, branded it “so racist.”

But others made fun of the very idea: “The NERVE of Volkswagen to insinuate with their commercial that Jamaican people are happy & fun-loving . . . Boy, that’s just rude.. And racist,” a poster named GOPFashionista tweeted sarcastically Tuesday.

The mini-brushfire over the commercial is both a potential bane and a boon for VW, which will spend at least $8 million for its one minute of airtime on the big game on CBS.

Bane, because who wants an $8 million ad buy to turn into a debate about racism?

Boon, because a little controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing for something whose entire purpose is to draw attention.

For the record, VW, whose U.S. headquarters are in Herndon, says critics have it all wrong.

“If you look at the whole intent of the commercial for us, it’s about making people happy,” said Scott Vazin, a VW spokesman. “The idea is to put a smile on your face. It’s simple and human and humorous.”

Perhaps, he said, “some people are over-thinking this one.”

The company said it tested the ad with consumers, including about 100 Jamaicans, and got no negative feedback. In the hours since the issue blew up, Vazin said, the company has gotten “many” positive comments from the public, including Jamaicans. “The response has been: ‘We get it. Accents don’t have a color,’ ” he said.

That’s what Richard Prince, who writes Journal-isms, a blog about diversity issues in the news business, says. “It’s good to remember that there are white and Asian Jamaicans, too, and they speak with what we would call a Jamaican accent,” he said.

Prince added: “It reminds me of anyone taken with another culture who comes back home and tries to emulate it. Think of all the white reggae and hip-hop fans.”

A spokesman for the Jamaican Embassy in Washington said the embassy would respond after viewing the commercial. Calls seeking follow-up comment were not returned.

Vazin said the company “never set out to be controversial” with the ad. “It’s always your intent to get attention, but there are different kinds of attention. I don’t think this is harming us, based on the feedback we’ve gotten.”

Nevertheless, VW has a backup ad ready to go for Sunday’s game, just in case. As of Tuesday, the Jamaican commercial was still in the starting lineup.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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