As with any major entertainment event, this year’s Super Bowl had its share of surprises and controversy. For example, there was the power outage — and I’m not just talking about how [underperforming player] ruined things for the [team name]! Then there was the halftime show, when two homeless ladies rushed the stage and sang a song with Beyonce. And that’s to say nothing of the game itself, which ended in a victory for one of the teams while the other team did not make enough points to achieve victory (or so I am told)!
But one of the controversies pertained not to the game, or to the halftime entertainment, or to the state of Louisiana’s embarrassing failure to recognize electricity as legitimate science. It had to do with one of the commercials that aired during the game, an ad for Volkswagen that said that if you drive a Volkswagen you will be Jamaican. Here is the commercial in question:
In case you can’t watch the commercial because your employer blocks YouTube videos, or because you are reading this column from a device that does not support video streaming (such as a typewriter or a cinderblock), or because you belong to a religion that forbids the viewing of moving pictures, I will describe it to you.
Everyone at the office is grumpy because it’s Monday and they’re all a bunch of Garfields, but one guy is optimistic and cheerful. He speaks with a Jamaican accent — a reference to Jamaica being a sunny vacation paradise where everyone is happy all the time, because of marijuana. The joke is that the man with the Jamaican accent is not Jamaican: he is a white guy from Minnesota. He’s just so effing happy that he can’t help but talk like a Jamaican! And what has made him so chipper? Marijuana, probably. Also, somehow, a Volkswagen. He drives his co-workers around in it, and probably gets them baked, and soon they are also carefree and speaking Jamaican.
Now, if you showed me that commercial and said that some people had a problem with it, I would have guessed it was due to the ad’s false assertion that driving a Volkswagen will make you happy. Automakers have been propagating this theory for years, but the reality is that studies linking car ownership to serotonin levels have been inconclusive at best. Mental-health experts do not recommend buying a Volkswagen (or any other kind of automobile) as a remedy for depression, and it is irresponsible for Volkswagen to suggest that its product is a “quick fix” for such a complex and potentially debilitating condition. As one who has struggled with clinical depression, I am both shocked and, yes, appalled by this flippant attitude. The best word to describe how I feel is shockpalled.
But no, it turns out that is not what people are upset about. The offensive thing, as we learn from an article in USA Today, is that it has a white American person imitating the dialect of a black Jamaican person. Why is this offensive? Take it away, people with hyphenated last names!
“What happens in this ad is that the culture becomes a punch line, and that is offensive,” said one Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, described in the article as the “chief Hispanic marketing strategist” at an “African-American, Gay/Lesbian and Hispanic” ad agency, both of which are real things.
Along the same lines, Ricki Fairley-Brown, president of another multicultural marketing agency, had this to say, without any apparent sense of hyperbole:
“It’s pretty horrific. Why do they have a white guy from Minnesota faking a Jamaican accent?”
We’ll give Ms. Fairley-Brown the benefit of the doubt and assume that if she could do it all over again, she would choose a word a few notches down the scale from “horrific.” Grisly car accidents are horrific. Biographies of Jeffrey Dahmer are horrific. The contents of Arianna Huffington’s colon are horrific. (She feeds mostly on lizards and gravel.) A guy doing a jolly Jamaican accent is not horrific, not unless he’s cutting off his own arm with a machete while he’s doing it.
But we will address the second part of Ms. Fairley-Brown’s statement. Why do they have a white guy from Minnesota faking a Jamaican accent? Because that’s the joke, you dolt. I don’t have time to explain how “humor” works, and there’s a chance she wouldn’t understand anyway, but the commercial is based on juxtaposition: hearing a Jamaican accent from a man who clearly is not Jamaican is — or at least has the potential to be — humorous. At the end of the commercial, when an Asian man and a crusty old white man also speak Jamaicanly, the potential for humor is even greater because they are even more not-Jamaican than the first guy was.
Watching this commercial and then asking “Why do they have a white guy doing a Jamaican accent?” is like watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and then asking “Why did that dad get hit in the crotch?” Because that’s the whole point, you humorless point-misser.
So is the commercial disrespectful to Jamaicans? Is it, as USA Today wonders, RACIST? Well, no. (But putting that word in the headline probably got a lot of people to click on the story, so well done!) The ad plays on Jamaica’s image as a carefree, happy-go-lucky sort of place — an image that (1) is positive, and (2) Jamaica’s tourism board works hard to perpetuate.
In fact, did USA Today ask Jamaica’s minister of tourism and entertainment what he thinks of the ad? Yes! “We view it as a compliment,” said Wykeham McNeill. “People should get into their inner Jamaica and get happy.” He added that the Jamaica Tourist Board is in talks with Volkswagen to work out some kind of promotional partnership. Then he smoked a big fat piece of ganja and did some limbo, because it was lunchtime.
If the issue is that imitating the speech patterns of a person who is not of your race is somehow inherently offensive, then I don’t know what to tell you other than no it isn’t. Sure, that sort of thing CAN be done offensively. If you’re exaggerating and lampooning the stereotypical vocal cadences of, say, a Chinaman, and making him an object of ridicule in a dehumanizing manner, then you are probably being racist. But there’s no lampooning in the VW commercial, nor is there even a racial component. It’s an ordinary imitation of an accent, like a voice actor might use, or like the one used by every person who’s ever listened to a Bob Marley song.
To summarize: Jamaicans are not being held up as objects of ridicule; the joke plays on a positive aspect of Jamaican culture that is embraced by Jamaicans themselves; and there are no derogatory comments about Jamaicans, such as mentioning how they’re all stoned 24/7 and hate homosexuals. Believe me, as a bleeding-heart socialist liberal communist who hates freedom and laughter, I know how invigorating it can be to get offended on behalf of someone else who is not offended. But let’s save our outrage for things that are worthier of it, like the way [name of player] [did something bad].