The brouhaha over Volkswagen's 2013 Super Bowl TV commercial escalates, with commentators divided as to whether or not the commercial is racist.
I am a senior communications executive working for the last 16 years in multicultural advertising, and neither I nor my agency colleagues find this commercial inappropriate.
A truly thoughtful discussion should acknowledge a few key points:
First, it is quite obvious that the approach is not to mimic Jamaicans, as much as to echo the famous Bob Marley lyric, "'Cause every little thing gonna be all right," from his song, "Three Little Birds" - a song that is burned into everyone's psyche with Marley's heavy Jamaican accent. Now, just think about how such a famous tune gets into your head: you listen to it, you start humming it, and all of a sudden, you start singing -- accent (or approximation thereof) and all. The only difference is that the main character in the Volkswagen spot carries the Marley accent -- and his 'everything's gonna be alright' attitude -- throughout his morning. I doubt there would have been such a controversy if the spot started by showing the protagonist actually listening to the original Marley song in his car as he parked at work, and then quietly singing it to himself -- getting more and more into the 'vibe' of the song -- all the way into the elevator.
Second, despite the older man in the car at the end, this spot appears to be positioned to a late Gen-X / Early Gen-Y demographic. Marketers all know that a hallmark characteristic of these segments is that they embrace diversity in a very easy and natural way that allows them to playfully -- and respectfully -- 'take each other on' across ethnic lines without conveying any inherent bias. My Gen-Y son loves rap, and tries to rap himself by approximating the sound of some celebrity African American rappers. In so doing, he conveys admiration and respect, not prejudice!
Finally, Volkswagen stated that the brand did its due-diligence with 100 Jamaicans to see if there were any 'red flags,' and nothing emerged from that check. It's really hard to imagine that if the spot were truly racist, 100 individuals from Jamaica would not have highlighted a problem. Then, last night, USA Today quoted Jamaica's Minister of Tourism and Entertainment as praising the spot unequivocally, stating he would even be ready to seek co-marketing opportunities with Volkswagen. Do we really need more validation??
High-profile advertising pundits can go on national TV to decry this work, but I think their criticisms are much ado about nothing. These commentators and other marketing/communications executives who embrace a 'blanket prohibition' on allowing someone from one group to 'put on' an accent from another group are viewing this spot way too superficially.
To be sure, there are some contexts where such an approach could be offensive but, clearly, this is NOT one of those cases.