Volkswagen accused of racism for ad using whites with Jamaican accents

NEW YORK, United States, Wednesday January 30, 2013 – When German auto company Volkswagen unveiled its Super Bowl ad on Monday, it had no idea of the furore that would erupt. But by Tuesday it was under heavy fire, with claims of racism over its use of white actors with Jamaican accents.

The minute-long commercial, which will cost the car manufacturer US$8 million to air during Sunday’s game, depicts a white man so happy to own a Volkswagen that he speaks with a jubilant and contagious Jamaican accent.

Well who tell dem do dat, mon?

Jamaican-born journalist Christopher John Farley wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the accents reminded him of the controversial character Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars movies, who used a Caribbean accent and broken English for comedic effect.

“It’s off-putting to see the Island spirit used as a punchline,” he wrote. “The Jamaican aesthetic–shaped by such Jamaican-born notables as Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and the revolutionary Nanny of the Maroons–is founded on positive vibration, not mindless happiness.”

And Farley was by no means alone.

“It’s just saying, ‘Black people are happy’”’ complained Barbara Lippert, editor-at-large of Mediapost.com, on the Today show. “Didn’t anyone look at this? This is so racist,” she added.

Lippert went on to predict that VW would pull the ad before the game, which is customarily watched by more than a hundred million viewers and costs advertisers US$4 million for just 30-seconds of airtime.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow also slammed the ad during a segment on CNN’s Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien.

“I don’t like it all,” he said during the roundtable discussion. “It’s like blackface with voices. I don’t like that.”

A somewhat bewildered Tim Mahoney, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Volkswagen of America, explained on CNN that the company consulted with 100 Jamaicans and used a dialect coach on-set to ensure that the accents were accurate.

“We obviously did our homework to make sure that we weren’t offensive,” he said.

Adding to the spirit of the ad, Mahoney noted that famed Jamaican performer Jimmy Cliff is featured singing a cover of the Partridge Family’s “C’mon, Get Happy.”

That, at least, hit a high note.

One commentator, Michelle Stalling, on the auto company’s YouTube page, where the ad has already been viewed more than 500,000 times, wrote, “Jimmy Cliff and VW. I see positivity and happiness in this Ad. I love it.”

The ad has found a few prominent defenders, moreover.

During the CNN debate, O’Brien, who has developed a long-running series, “Black in America” that probes issues of race in the country, said she enjoyed the ad.

And during the segment on the Today show, host Matt Lauer countered Lippert’s criticisms.

“I take a completely different view of it, to be honest with you. I thought, if you buy this car, it puts you in a happy place,” he said.

“And what’s happier then the memories we all have of being on beautiful islands on island time? That’s the way I took it.” Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)