Between fits of laughter during lunch on Thursday, my friend tried to explain the new ad that VW plans to air during Sunday’s Superbowl Halftime show. From his description, I wasn’t sure how the ad, of a white man who returns from his vacation with a Jamaican accent and a laid-back-turn-your-frown-upside-down kind of attitude, was supposed to sell Volkswagen cars – but I was curious to see it for myself.
I had been on the road for three days without television, radio or Internet and as soon as I returned home, I went online. Before I could even search for the ad, I noticed that I’d received five emails with VW in the subject line. One was a forwarded message of a press release that was put out by a Jamaican organization in support of the ad. I read it quickly but since I hadn’t yet seen the ad, I couldn’t understand why it was even necessary.
Now I was really curious. I did a Google search and was surprised to see that the entire page had article after article about the ad. Scanning a few, I noted that several people thought it was racist, others weren’t sure. I was mystified. I hadn’t gotten a sense from my friend’s description that he was offended. Why was everyone making such a brouhaha? What were we missing?
Have we become so sensitive that we can’t laugh at ourselves?
I was prepared to hate the ad but when I watched it, I couldn’t stop laughing. Maybe I should watch it again to get what all the fuss was about, I thought. I did but I still didn’t get it.
Although it was at times uncomfortable, my friends and I laughed at the portrayal of the Hedleys, a Jamaican family, in the always irreverent, always politically incorrect 1990s hit television show, In Living Color. I don’t remember anyone questioning then whether the popular show was racist or asking for it to be canceled even while it referred to us “coconuts” and played on and perhaps help perpetuate certain stereotypes.
Though we’re certainly not naive or unsophisticated about stereotyping or racism, every Jamaican I’ve spoken with or emailed about the VW ad thinks it’s funny. Most of us can’t understand what all “the noise,” as one friend characterizes it, is about.
Despite high unemployment, underemployment, corruption, crime, slow economic growth and a host of other ills within the society, Jamaicans manage to maintain such a sunny disposition that last year, the UN’s World Happiness Report ranked the island the 40th happiest of 156 countries in the world. Perhaps it’s that happiness that some visitors want to take back home.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We’re flattered that VW decided to use Jamaica in their ad but maybe they should do one better: allocate a percentage of the proceeds of their sales on this campaign to fund automotive education here. In the meantime, we have our own unique way of responding to the ad. See for yourself. If it doesn’t make you smile, nothing else will.