The vaguely racist VW Superbowl commercial

There’s a bunch of debate on YouTube as to whether or not this is racist.

Well, it stereotypes Jamaicans as being happy-go-lucky fellows who don’t sweat the small stuff and have a great big smile all day. Although it’s not offensive to say that an entire nation is happy, in this case it’s complete bullshit (particularly if you’re a homosexual; it’s illegal over there). So is it wrong to make a massive generalisation about a country, or is it OK so long as that generalisation is positive?

I’d say either generalising is wrong or it isn’t. What if he covered himself in brown shoe polish? There’s nothing wrong with having brown skin, is there? Would you find that offensive? What if he made a joke about having a big penis? Nothing wrong with that, eh? So would that inspire angry missives to VW’s HQ?

I had a good chat about this with my dad last year. He does stand-up comedy and was wondering why it’s OK for black people to say ‘nigger’ but not white people? Why would a Jewish person take offence at being called a ‘bloody Jew’, whereas a Zoroastrian would be more likely to just brush ‘bloody Zoroastrian’ aside?

We came to the conclusion that it’s down to historical oppression: there are certain races that have historically been given a raw deal. That seems to have resulted in the feeling that any further insulting of those races is offensive. The countries and races that have done the oppressing (which, not-very-coincidentally, are also the states with the strongest economies and most power) get much less offended at someone calling them out for the country they come from. Overall, Caucasian people rule the world (for the time being. Hello China!), so telling someone they’re part of the group that’s in charge is not going to be a problem.

An American in a German car ad pretending to be a Jamaican? Definitely iffy.

Oh, and besides that, the ad is not at all funny. It’s toe-curlingly embarrassing to watch those pisspoor clichés being worked over in such a bovine fashion.

Borderline racism I can take, but lazy, unamusing borderline racism? Why bother?

UPDATE: Here’s the making of: ‘You want to be doing a brilliant job to make people just love Volkswagen’. Good luck with that.

Comments 44

  1. AdamT wrote:

    Oooh, that really is hard to watch. ‘That’s the power of German engineering’ rather hangs in the air too.

    It takes a lot of meetings to make an ad. A lot. How The Fuck? (Etc, Etc, to fade…)

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 6:48 pm
  2. Original Richard H wrote:

    Racist? Probably. Crap? Definitely.

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 7:40 pm
  3. peggy wrote:

    what. the. fuck. unbelievable. this is appalling. right now, i’m lost for any words i won’t regret later on.

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 7:44 pm
  4. Nick wrote:

    Think it’s safe to take the ‘vaguely’ out of the headline.

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 7:51 pm
  5. vinny warren wrote:

    Irie mon! Mother of god that was witless in the extreme. And I bet you none of the crack team that came up with that have ever even been to Jamaica.

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 8:23 pm
  6. Oriel Davis-Lyons wrote:

    Glad you brought this up as I spent most of yesterday seething about it.

    The problem I have with this ad, is that is was undoubtedly written by people who have the most basic and generic knowledge of the culture they’re appropriating.

    They know two things about Caribbean culture (the accent and reggae music) and they use this ‘knowledge’ as if it’s some sort of truth or insight.

    Generalisation is necessary in this business due to the limited time we have to communicate. However, if you begin to generalise from a position of complete cultural ignorance, you’ll end up with the crude assumptions made in this piece of shit ad.

    What if they had been doing ‘Indian’ accents or ‘Chinese’ accents? For some reason, putting on a Caribbean accent for comic effect is still OK, even though it has never, ever been funny.

    So, with that, I’d like to say to VW and the creatives who wrote this…”Go suck yuh mudda”.

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 9:36 pm
  7. Anonymouse wrote:

    Executionally it’s like someone’s Dad trying to be funny when you are a teenager.

    I’m certain the planning department responsible will think it’s excellent. It has planners written all over it.

    Posted 29 Jan 2013 at 10:03 pm
  8. Oops wrote:

    And shot by the normally ‘turns everything to gold’ Tom kuntz…he is human after all

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 1:27 am
  9. itsalllies wrote:

    What the hell. The ASA would have a field day if that was played in the UK.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 8:17 am
  10. steakandcheese wrote:

    @8 They probably made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 9:34 am
  11. Paddy McPaddy wrote:

    If this was an ad about Luck, and the guy was wearing a green suit and talking in an Irish accent… would people still complain?

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 10:01 am
  12. John wrote:

    “You’re from Minnesota, right?”

    I’m guessing that line was to include blind people in the joke too?

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 10:22 am
  13. anti-campaign wrote:

    i like it.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 11:08 am
  14. Jim wrote:

    It’s like they tried to do a version of The Office. And missed. The others should be cringing at the main character. Not be converted by him.

    Does this ad embarrass VW owners?

    Another ad that says people will buy (stuff) cars that make them ‘happy’?

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 11:37 am
  15. ben wrote:

    @ Paddy. Depends on a whole bunch of other things.

    The idea that Jamaicans are happy-go-lucky, easy-going types (implicitly because they’re stoned) doesn’t really help the credibility of that country.

    If an Irish stereotype said that all they do is doss about waiting for pots of gold at the end of rainbows then that might also be problematic.

    It’s a kind of ‘de haut en bas’ thing.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 11:41 am
  16. Gareth wrote:

    This is so offensive as it’s reminiscent of the minstrel tradition where black stereotypes were played for laughs by whites.

    Incidentally, if you want to hear a whitey speak with a Jamaican accent take a London bus containing some poor wannabe gangsta white kids. However, happiness isn’t the first emotion that comes to mind.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 11:59 am
  17. Ed wrote:

    Isn’t this an extension of the ad with Jimmy Cliff singing the soundtrack song with all the angry people off YouTube?

    That presumably explains why the stereotypical Jamaican bits are in this one.

    My two cents are that it’s lazy and stereotypical, but not racist. But maybe that’s because I’m aware of the jimmy cliff connection.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 12:16 pm
  18. Ed wrote:

    Link for the ad mentioned above:

    http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2013/january/get-happy-vw

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 12:29 pm
  19. Stan wrote:

    Maybe they just saw my white Jamaican dad on you tube

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 12:45 pm
  20. Anonymous wrote:

    It’s racist. And probably one of the worst vw ads I’ve seen. So far seems the Taco Bell Super Bowl ad is the best so far.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 1:02 pm
  21. Me wrote:

    It’s racist, yes.

    But what I find even more offensive is the bad performances and the overall abortion of an idea.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 1:19 pm
  22. Steve wrote:

    So generalising people into ‘historic victims’ and therefore treating them differently based on how ‘their people’ were treated is any less racist than some ethnic stereotype?

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 1:39 pm
  23. Ed wrote:

    To echo Stan’s comment:

    Might it be considered equally racist to assume that everyone who comes from Jamaica is black?

    It’s stereotyping a nation, not a race.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 2:06 pm
  24. ben wrote:

    Steve: it’s probably just as racist.

    Ed: by your own argument I think it would be racist to assume that everyone who is black is xxx, not everyone who comes from Jamaica is xxx.

    It’s also somewhat disingenuous to argue that the tiny minority of people who might be portrayed by a wide stereotype negate the negative suggestions of that stereotype as they apply to the vast majority.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 2:32 pm
  25. Lubomir wrote:

    Ben, please tell the marketers to stop showing their Super Bowl ads before Super Bowl. It’s killing the surprise for me… :)

    And yes – I find this commercial not funny. But probably the “big idea” was to provoke exactly this – useless “social media” discussion is it racist or not. I just don’t know how this helps selling Beetles :)

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 3:24 pm
  26. Anonymous wrote:

    I don’t think it’s racist. A Jamaican I know doesn’t think it is either. And he reads the Guardian.
    But as he often says, “Offence is taken, not given.”

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 3:49 pm
  27. David and Jonathan wrote:

    Yes, racist.

    And Anonymous (no 20), the Taco Bell ad is extraordinarily similar to something we did 3 months ago for VW China. Go Compare.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7arXmkno-E

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 4:31 pm
  28. ben wrote:

    @ 17/18, I rather like that version of the ad. It’s fairly amusing and doesn’t offend me at all.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 4:36 pm
  29. Rob Hatfield wrote:

    The ad is definitely stupid, but it is definitely not racist. Look it up in the dictionary, folks. It is stereotyping. For humorous effect. Which can be racist, but not in this instance. No one is harmed. No one is implying that Jamaicans are inferior in any way, or that they are always stoned (which still would not be racist). It’s just a dumb ad.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 5:37 pm
  30. Mister Gash wrote:

    There are probably many great creative ideas to help VW sell more Beetles.

    This isn’t one of them.

    I thought contemporary Beetles were meant to be (relatively) cool and hip with VW’s range. A touch of retro – reflecting a shard of the iconography of the brand’s heritage.

    This doesn’t have an ounce of any of that. Shame.

    Vinny nailed it in one. Witless.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 5:45 pm
  31. Ed wrote:

    Ben: Yeh I can’t make that argument stand up.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 5:57 pm
  32. Cynical wrote:

    @David&Jonathan And that’s extraordinarily similar to something made in Sweden a few years back, can’t remember for who, with the old people having the house party, jumping in the pool etc. Get to fuck.

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 6:57 pm
  33. Anonymous wrote:

    It’s shit and lazy and doesn’t make sense. Why would a vw make you Jamaican as opposed to just put you in a happy mood? Wouldn’t it make you a smiley German if you follow that logic?

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 9:27 pm
  34. peggy wrote:

    i still can’t get over the fact that it is vw with their ‘german engineering’ who thought it was funny to use racist stereotypes. (i could elaborate why this is racist and what streotypes are and how they work, but i guess everyone knows!) if they had wanted to fuck with people’s heads, they could at least have cast a person of colour as the over-correct middle manager at the end. this is just racist and dumb.
    if people weren’t feeling the gravitational pull and warmth of ‘german engineering’ they should have just redesigned the logo

    Posted 30 Jan 2013 at 10:59 pm
  35. peggy wrote:

    um, where’s the cluster-fuck of emoticon at the end of my last sentence. now it looks like i had been deadly serious with it. good point, ben – if you deleted it. other than that, very funny.

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 11:52 am
  36. peggy wrote:

    oh, i know, my fault without spaces probably makes html tag

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 11:57 am
  37. worm wrote:

    its a Jar Jar Binks ad

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 12:08 pm
  38. beto wrote:

    Well
    I’m from Panama and I’m white, but we are so mixed up racially that I don’t think anybody finds this offending at all,

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 4:01 pm
  39. Andrew wrote:

    I find that if the bit/sketch/ad is found to be funny by someone, there is a lot more leeway given. If it’s found to be elitist or not funny, there is absolutely no leeway.

    My problem is that suggesting this ad is racist is that it closes the door on white actors portraying any other race. I don’t see any racial insensitivity in the portrayal of Jamaicans. Does he scrunch up his eyes as he creates a funny accent? Is he carrying his body in an exaggerated way? He is doing an actual Jamaican accent. No hyperbole in the portrayal of the accent. Is even that off limits now? (or only if it isn’t funny?)

    What if the Red Stripe Beer Guy (Yay Beer!) were in the ad instead? Is it okay for happy Jamaican people to portray happy Jamaican people?

    An “unfunny”, “lazy” ad does not racism make.

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 4:32 pm
  40. Butterbean wrote:

    To paraphrase Harry Connick Jnr…

    “I just want to say, on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously, but we’ve spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart.”

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 5:06 pm
  41. Chantelle wrote:

    have any of you actually been to Jamaica? Are any of you even Jamaican? Are you AWARE that there are people of every race that have been born and raised in Jamaica? If you weren’t so ignorant of Jamaican culture, chances are you wouldn’t be offended.

    Posted 31 Jan 2013 at 8:05 pm
  42. it floats wrote:

    If this is racism, then we may as well stop watching the Simpsons.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 5:21 pm
  43. ben wrote:

    We may as well stop watching The Simpsons anyway; it’s been shit for at least a decade.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 11:25 pm
  44. Karina wrote:

    Have you seen this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnOyMSEWNTs
    Will sell a sofa to blacks, whites and Hispanics (but not Asian?)

    Posted 02 May 2013 at 10:32 am

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