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 Volkswagen 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.