Volkswagen unleashed their big new "Get Happy" Superbowl ad upon the internet this week, and the question on everyone's mind is—naturally—wait, is that racist?
In it, "Dave" – a white man from Minnesota – speaks in a fake Jamaican accent as he implores his co-workers to "get happy" and overcome "the Mondays." Eventually, office life brightens and Dave takes his boss and some co-workers for a spin in his Beetle. Each speaks with a Jamaican accent as the commercial ends.
So, the commercial is basically "Under the Sea" meets that time Michael Scott came back from Sandals Jamaica and wouldn't stop playing the steel drum. It exploits the idea that "island people" are all happy-go-lucky cartoons paid to serve us with a smile (to echo Pam in that same Office episode, um, Jamaica's kind of an impoverished country...) and the fact that, clearly, Americans aren't sure whether or not we're "allowed" to make fun of Jamaican people. Gray area!!! Cha-ching!
Not great. Perpetuating positive stereotypes is not as bad as perpetuating negative ones, but it's still a systemic problem that warrants examination. (Also, can we please euthanize the what-if-a-white-guy-didn't-talk-like-a-white-guy school of comedy already? Pleeeeeeeeeease?)
But no matter how offensive you might find the ad (or not), no five minutes of television have ever blown my mind harder than the Today Show crew attempting to talk about it. Specifically, whether or not the ad's "Jamaican flavor" is problematic. My friend posted this clip on her Facebook with the caption, "It's okay, guys. Volkswagen consulted over 100 Jamaicans." And I was like, "Ohhhhh ho ho ho ho, my friend! She is so funny with the jokes!"
Then I watched it.
AND THAT IS ACTUALLY LITERALLY WHAT THEY SAY. THEY CONSULTED 100 JAMAICANS. That's a statement that Volkswagen actually released, and then the Today Show actually repeats on the air, and then an "ad expert" lady comes on and her outrage goes terribly wrong. You must watch it. Is it Christmas? Is this real life?
Well, 100 Jamaicans couldn't be wrong! That is the going rate for an acquittal in Racism Court. 100 Jamaicans and 30 Helens. Oh, Today Show, don't ever stop being so awkward and terrible. I love you.
Anyway, here's Adweek on why cries of racism won't hurt Volkswagen:
While it won't say so explicitly, Volkswagen can lean on three facts here: First, the Jamaican accent is not exclusively a black accent. This technically makes it difficult to call the ad racist, even though its humor is racial-i.e., it clearly derives from showing a white guy talking like a black guy.
Second, perhaps due to the laid-back reputation of the island nation, the Jamaican accent is simply not seen by many Americans as an offensive one to imitate. By contrast, an ad with white Minnesotans talking in stereotypical Asian accents clearly wouldn't fly.
Third, the entire tone of the ad is positive and feel-good. This makes it less likely for people to want to punish Volkswagen for it. The theme and very title of the ad, "Get Happy," is a rebuke to critics who would want to spoil the party.
Fourth, 100 Jamaicans. Do not forget about them.