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Video: Is the VW Super Bowl Ad ‘Blackface With Voices’?

By Luke Visconti

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother writing about Super Bowl ads, but there’s one coming up this Sunday from Volkswagen that is a good “teachable moment.” The Volkswagen ad in question features a white guy (we learn in the ad that he is from Minnesota) who speaks in what sounds to me like a mashup Rastafarian/Jamaican accent and who is inanely happy.

The controversy over this ad is not a small matter: In the CNN roundtable discussion below, Jamaican-born Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher John Farley objects strongly to the commercial, and New York Times columnist Charles Blow calls it “Blackface with voices.”

The Internet is replete with white people opining that this ad isn’t racist, but there’s another Volkswagon ad that I find more troubling. It features a Pied Piper-singing guy who is the only featured Black person in the ad—and he’s dressed like a street person. It backs up my sense of the chief marketing officer and the ad agency being completely out of touch.

In my opinion, Volkswagen’s Super Bowl commercial is more creepy than racist in the sense that it’s troubling that a big car company can do something which appears to me to be so 20 years ago. This isn’t a mistake by a local business putting an ad in the Pennysaver; a 30-second ad in this year’s Super Bowl costs an average of $3.8 million.

When I first saw the ad, I thought it must have come from the minds of middle-aged white people who don’t get out much—and sure enough, the interview with Tim Mahoney, Volkswagen’s CMO, shows him to be a roughly 50-year-old, goatee-wearing white (American) man. The ad agency is Deutsch; here’s an article that has interviews with the agency people who did this. Not a nonwhite face in sight. No women in any position of authority were interviewed on the set of the commercial shoot (see the video). Here’s the agency’s leadership—all apparently white. I could not find a nonwhite face on the company’s website. Deutsch is owned by IPG. Here’s IPG’s senior management—five apparently white men and one white woman.

Deutsch and IPG are headquartered in New York City, which is 33.3% non-Hispanic white. There are almost 700,000 descendants of Caribbean immigrants. There’s simply no excuse for being out of touch—or having that little diversity.

The bottom line is that I don’t think the publicity is a “win” for Volkswagen. Our country is rapidly becoming more diverse, with more nonwhite births than white births for the first time in our history. The diversity of our country increases as age decreases, and that’s producing more new family units that are diverse. The end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the growing number of states with legalized same-gender marriage rights increase that here-and-now diversity. And let’s include the millions of veterans returning from combat zones of the past decade in that mix; they are accelerating the issue of inclusion for people with disabilities.

How this plays out for corporate communications can be seen in the last presidential election: Despite spending more than $1 billion, Governor Romney’s largest demographic was people over 65 years old, and 88 percent of the people who voted for him were white. President Obama’s largest demographic was 18-to-26-year-olds, and 56 percent of the people who voted for the president were white. If you were selling cars, which demographic would you prefer? If you were on Volkswagen’s board of directors, how could you be pleased with this foolish, out-of-touch ad that is clearly upsetting many people? What does it say about your marketing department? Or your ad agency?

Other articles I think are worth reading include “Volkswagen teases Super Bowl ad, explains why it doesn’t star Jar Jar Binks” from Entertainment Weekly and ‘It’s like blackface with voices’ from London’s Daily Mail that uses Charles Blow’s “Blackface with voices” line.

I think it’s always been true that you are more likely to make a bad decision with a homogeneous group. In our multicultural country—in our hyperconnected world—your bad decision will reach millions far more quickly. Further, nonmajority people feel more empowered than ever, and more white families have taken on diversity internally through marriage, adoption and awareness of LGBT relatives.

Volkswagen, you can do better than this.

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18 Comments

  • The fact that the Jamaican government came out and said that they didn’t find this offensive negates the uproar over this commercial. Please understand that there are other cultures who were born, reared and live in Jamaica including Caucasians and Asians who have a Jamaican accent.

    It was meant as a humorous advertisement and being close-minded enough to say it is “Blackfaces” with voices seems ignorant and does a disservice to the people of the beautiful country of Jamaica.

    It appears to me that this is just the hook to hang the Controversy hat in for this year’s Big Game’s advertisement.

  • It may be a little more nuanced than this. That “street person” is Jimmy Cliff, one of Jamaica’s proudest cultural exports, though I guess viewers will have to know that to appreciate the spirit they’re trying to depict (they may be targeting the demo that knows that). So the Minnesota ad is presumably a reference to that one, though if you saw it as a stand-alone it can come across as odd as you describe.

    I think your point about inclusion in the ad-creative workforce is right on, and until that gets better we’ll never know what smarter images or cultural allusions might come forward. But we live in interesting times, where there’s arguably more cultural mix and relationship than we’ve known before in the US, and I wonder if somewhat awkward public steps like these are the price we pay for struggling to better know and understand and give props to each other in ways we hope are positive but risk being clunky.

  • Luke is correct that the roots of this completely inappropriate VW ad can be found in the lack of diversity within advertising agencies. This lack of diversity starts with employee demographic, but from there it translates directly into lack of diversity of thought.

    Blatant, entrenched, widespread race and gender discrimination in the advertising industry is documented in depth in a recent research study, Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry, by Marc Bendick, Jr. and Mary Lou Egan. This study can be read either on the website of the Madison Avenue Project (http://www.madisonavenueproject.com) or in the publications section of my website, http://www.bendickegan.com.

  • They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. I am a born Jamaican and I’m thrilled to see attempts to raise the consciousness of my culture into the mainstream consciousness, and for the most part in a positive, uplifting way. The negatives are that the guy does not sound authentically Jamaican. Some kind of mix between Jamaican and Asian – which perhaps isn’t so far-fetched since there are tons of Asians (Indian and Chinese descent) in Jamaica. Plenty of white people too. The ad does have also a bit of go-lucky, minstreal-like nuance to it that some could say suggests negative stereotypes of the carefree black person who has no worries – and I guess this is where the blackface with voices comment comes from.

    But in fact, Jamaicans are some of the hardest workers out there and employers embrace Jamaicans in the workforce. It would be interesting for Diversity magazine to do some research on this, although it is also a somewhat sad commentary that even within the black race, racial lines of distinction are drawn. I’ve had employers tell me that I’m not black. I’m Jamaican. Which was truly one of the most perplexing paradoxical statements I had ever heard. (smh)

    When a Jamaican says, “no problem, mon,” what we are saying is don’t worry, stay focused, we’ll get this solved. So in my opinion, one has a choice in how to view this and it might be better to choose the positive, rather than the negative. It’s just a better way to live. And by the way, I own a Volkswagon CC and it is the sexiest hottest car out there. So, no worries, mon. Everything irie.

  • According to this AP article, many Jamaicans are embracing the ad and can’t understand what the fuss is about. And Jamaican government officials are hoping to use it to draw attention to the island’s allures. Granted, the article didn’t conduct a scientific poll to gauge sentiment in Jamaica about the ad, clearly there is a lot of support for it, and it isn’t the clear-cut issue that you make it out to be.

    • Luke Visconti

      Odd thing to have to have your ad approved by an entire government, isn’t it? I’d assume the leadership at VW would have preferred an ad that didn’t get attention this way. I don’t think it did much to sell cars, and I’ll bet there have been plenty of meetings to discuss abandoning the “happy” brand image in light of the controversy. Net—it wasn’t a plus for the brand. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • What I find offensive is that Luke did not do his homework to learn more about the Jamaican culture and the fact that Jamaica is quite diverse and we do have white Jamaicans that speak exactly like the actor in the ad. We have people of all races – hence the Motto “Out of Many one People.” so to say Black face with boices is pure ignorance on the part of Mr. Blow and Others who agree. What is really offensive is for Luke to describe our language as mash up/Rastafarian!, And to describe Jimmy Cliff as a street person shows lack of cultural dexterity….really offensive!!! Please take the time to do your homework before you write and insult a nation.

    • Luke Visconti

      The actor in the ad says he’s from Minnesota. I didn’t call Jimmy Cliff a street person. And, come on, that ad is downright creepy. I didn’t describe your language that way—I described the white actor (who says he’s from Minnesota) as speaking that way. And Charles Blow and Christopher John Farley (who is FROM Jamaica) have a right to their own opinion—and are highly sought after to give just that. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I am a black woman from the West Indies and did not find the ad offensive at all. There are many white people in Jamaica who sound very much like the character in the commercial. I was happy to see some of my culture represented. It was a funny ad. Instead of picking on that ad-what about the Stevie Wonder one-voodoo dolls-give me a break!

  • Caroline D

    Hello Luke – While i completely respect the point you are making that diversity in organizations is necessary, there are a few things that i have questions about.

    While its true you didn’t actually call Jimmy Cliff a street person, you did however say he was dressed as a street person. What exactly about his dress makes you think he looks like a street person?

    Why is it an issue that Jimmy “is the only featured Black person in the ad”? Would you have felt differently if there was an angry black person in the group who became happy?

    You say “When I first saw the ad, I thought it must have come from the minds of middle-aged white people who don’t get out much—and sure enough, the interview with Tim Mahoney, Volkswagen’s CMO, shows him to be a roughly 50-year-old, goatee-wearing white (American) man.” So did you do any research on Tim Mahoney or did you assume just because he was white and middle aged that he doesnt get out much? Sounds like a stereotype to me.

    Lastly, if you found that the CMO was black or asian or hispanic or a woman, would your analysis of this ad have been any different?

    • Luke Visconti

      Look at how the ad agency dressed Jimmy Cliff versus the other characters in the commercial. It’s a striking difference. I understand the way Jimmy Cliff is dressed may be in context at his concerts, but it’s jarring and different in this ad, and I cannot separate that difference from the other difference—that he’s the only main Black character in the commercial. By the way, the other actors were not all portraying angry people; some were upset. And aside from omitting Black people, the crowd was almost 100% white.

      On your other point, I researched who the CMO is after I saw the commercial; if the CMO were anything other than a middle-aged white man, I’d have been surprised. But the CMO didn’t do this himself. He was part of a team, the leadership of which was entirely middle-aged white men (see: the behind-the-scenes interview video). That’s not to say that an entirely middle-aged-white-male team can’t put together a commercial that is in touch with the core target for VW, but it sure is easier to make mistakes that way, and I think you’re better off including the people you’re trying to sell to in the first place. The Millennial generation is almost 40 percent nonwhite and/or Latino. Accents are far more usual to that generation than to the Boomers, who are only 26 percent nonwhite and/or Latino. (And keep in mind that nonwhite immigration quotas were in place until 1965, the year after the Baby Boom generation ended.)

      BTW, according to quantcast.com, VW’s website attracts mostly younger people (25–34 is the largest demo by far), more women than men, more people with no children than with children, and overindexes for Asians and Latinos. So what’s up with that ad agency? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I believe this is a case of making a mountain out of a mole hill. If people in the alledged offended group are NOT offended… then who truly are the people that are out of touch? Perhaps we need to not take offense on behalf of others.

    • Luke Visconti

      Not everyone is offended by offensive things—or will say they’re offended if it’s for the better good (Jamaican tourism). But look at the CNN interview. Charles Blow and Christopher John Farley are plenty offended. One’s from The New York Times, the other is from The Wall Street Journal. Their credentials are about as good as it gets. I wouldn’t presume to tell them what they shouldn’t be offended by. I take it at face value. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I used to work for a large German company and find the entire company to be completely comprised of old white men. Certainly no women of authority and no people of color. It is as if other people dont count so i am not surprised to see this come from vw or their agency. Ultimately their american cmo has to answer to corporate in germany. They are completely out of touch. As a person of color I find mainstream TV in general to push white supremacy themes and images to me at every moment. Every show is all about a white person, commercials are largely dominated by Caucasians. The constant bombardment of white images is a little too much. I have stopped watching TV and only watch programs that more or less cater to me. I actually think personalized programming is the future of entertainment so that if I so desire I can watch programs wih people that look like me if hat is what i choose. Today the strategy is one size fits all.

    • Luke Visconti

      I think you make a very important point. In my opinion, a steadfast refusal by publishers to diversify the editorial and business teams of magazines destroyed the industry. The all-white, all-Connecticut leadership missed the entire Internet age—and their progeny, the still-all-white Madison Avenue ad agencies, tried to fight the Internet when it first came on the scene. The same thing is happening in television. The Internet gives us an infinite number of “channels,” fracturing audiences and giving new brands a chance to grow. I predict more and more independently shot programming, produced at a fraction of the cost of “traditional” television. (Doesn’t the cable box feel so last century? My FiOS went out on Friday and the best Verizon could do was to give us an 11-hour window seven days later—anything scream “1972″ more than that?) More people are skipping text in favor of video on DiversityInc.com; we’re adjusting our edit creation this year as a result. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • The point is not whether some Jamaicans are offended, the point is the ad offended a lot of people. When you’re trying to sell a product (cars) the goal is to get people to buy the product. You do not want to offend anyone. Luke is right. VW wasted a lot of money running an ad that could possibly discourage some people from buying their product. It’s hard to believe that ad was the best all that brain power, talent, and creativity could produce. And here’s the kicker, they knew it might be offensive, that’s why they ran it by some Jamaicans. Here’s free advertising advice – If you think you’re ad might be offensive, hey, don’t run it, do a better ad.

  • Will Cannon

    As a person of color, I agree 100% with Luke. Here’s why:

    Imagine if the White guy had a pronounced urban black accent, we would be calling it racist (I’m sure there will be some here saying that even White people raised in urban areas sometimes have the same accent).

    To use the exception (white people being raised in Jamaica) as the rule is a logical fallacy. Most people watching the ad weren’t thinking here is a White man from Jamaica. Most are thinking here is a White man from Minnesota faking a Jamaican accent.

    I for one am tired of White people putting on non-White faces or voices. It isn’t funny. In fact, it is downright offensive. I am not buying a VW any time soon.

  • Charity Dell

    I am African-american, and I found the advertisement somewhat weird and jarring–I wasn’t sure if VW was trying to say:

    1. You need to be Jamaican to help the white Minnesota
    crowd “loosen up”?;
    2. Jamaicans are “happier” than white folks from the North Central USA?;
    3. If you buy a Volkswagen, you’ll be “as happy” as the Jamaican-speaking folks?;
    4. The very “incongruity” of Jamaican English paired with
    North Central Euro-americans will help you “see the light” to purchase the car?

    Also, I didn’t know if the actors were imitating real
    Jamaican speech they’d heard (or studied), or if they
    were lip-synching to a Jamaican actor’s speech.

    It was all so bizarre to me, I wasn’t sure exactly WHAT
    the message was, other than “Buy this car because our ad is bizarre!”

    Things that make you go “hmmmmmmm”….

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