Has Volkswagen Stereotyped Jamaicans with its “Be Happy” Super Bowl Ads?

Today’s post is a departure from our usual focus. I’m taking time out to deal with the controversy that has developed about Volkswagen’s Super Bowl ads.

Has Volkswagen Stereotyped Jamaicans with its “Be Happy” Super Bowl Ads?

The short answer to that question is no “definitely not”. I am Jamaican and in no way shape or form am I offended by the ads.  The ads, which feature international Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff, are  light and funny. Sure, they’re somewhat silly, but so what? Humour is meant to be silly.

The bottom line is that the ads are positive. How anyone can object to a message encouraging people to put some happiness into their day is beyond me?  As a Jamaican, if I am going to be stereotyped, I would rather be stereotyped as a positive person with a bright outlook on life than an angry person. I LOVE the line “turn that frown the other way around”.

Take a peek:

Certainly, people in Jamaica don’t go around smiling, singing and dancing all day long. (Anyone who thinks this after viewing the commercial is lacking in the gray matter department.) However, there is an approach to life that seeks to move beyond negative experiences and strive for more positive outcomes. This has allowed a nation that has faced a number of struggles including slavery, economic challenges, and natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes to get through tough times and keep on moving.

The Jamaica Tourist Board has endorsed the ads.

McNeill described the commercial as a tribute to the popularity of reggae music worldwide, while saluting reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff for being a true Jamaican ambassador through his outstanding music.” I urge persons all across the globe to do exactly what the commercial portrays, which is to tap into your inner Jamaican and ‘get happy.”

Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism and Entertainment, Dr. Wykeham McNeill endorses VW Super Bowl commercial

I have just done a quick Google search and it is telling that, at the time of writing, not even one major media outlet has carried news about this endorsement so far. There has been plenty of airtime given to American journalists and ad agency reps. who object to the ads.

I don’t speak for all Jamaicans. I can only speak for myself. I am sure that there may be some Jamaicans who don’t like the commercials. People will always have different points of view.  Also, none of  the Jamaicans I know are offended by the ads.

Update: Even the Prime Minister of Jamaica has come out in support of the ads:

Considering all of this, the reaction of some American journalists to the second commercial is somewhat confusing.

Here are some examples of negative media reaction.

Here are reactions from some of the people in Jamaica who were shown the ads:

More Jamaicans React

Update: In the interests of balance I have found one Jamaican, Christopher John Farley Wall Street Journal journalist, who had some concerns.

If, by and large, Jamaicans, the Jamaica Tourist Board and Jamaican media outlets don’t have concerns about the commercials, why are American journalists crying racism?

Some of the reactions show that these individuals are highly misinformed about Jamaica. Some seem to have a problem with a White man speaking with a Jamaican accent. Frankly, the actor has done a pretty good job. He never represents himself as a Jamaican. It is clear that he is a man from Minnesota speaking with a Jamaican accent.

The comments made by Barbara Lippert from MediaPost.com were particularly disturbing. Referring to a Jamaican accent as a “Black accent” totally misses the mark. Charles M. Blow, New York Times columnist, made equally offensive comments by referring to the ads as being “like “blackface with voices”. Give me a break. Just who is doing the stereotyping?

Newsflash! Jamaica is a racially diverse society, Jamaica’s National Motto is “Out of Many One People”. Jamaicans come in all races, colours, and shades. Our history is a rich tapestry of the ethnic backgrounds of our ancestors who have come from all over the world. When Jamaicans shake their family trees many are likely to find ancestors from a number of backgrounds including African, Taino, English, Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Lebanese, and East Indian. There are many White and Chinese Jamaicans.

When, Barbara Lippert asked “What does Jamaica have to do with Germany?” (as Volkswagen is a German brand), she showed a lack of awareness of Jamaican history. First of all, Volkswagens have been very popular in Jamaica. Years after they disappeared from North America, Volkswagen Bugs were in good repair and being driven on the streets of Kingston.

Clearly Barbara is not aware that some Jamaicans do trace their ancestry to Germany.

This article from The Gleaner, Jamaica’s daily newspaper that has been published since 1834, traces the presence of Germans in Jamaica back to 1778:

The article discusses the fact that, under a practice known as “bountied European immigration”, 64 Germans migrated to Jamaica in May, 1834. Many followed in their footsteps. In 1835, for example, 250 German immigrants were settled on Lord Seaforth’s Estate. Today this area is known as Seaforth Town.

This video takes you on a virtual journey to Seaforth Town and traces the history of some of the first Germans to migrate to Jamaica.

Other Germans were settled in the mountainous areas of parish like St. Ann. For the most part, they have intermarried with the local population that is predominantly Black.

I would strongly recommend that, before journalists and ad agency representatives make ignorant comments that reflect poorly on their employers, they take the time to do even a simple Google search and get their facts straight. If this is too difficult, perhaps media outlets should make a point of having more diverse teams. If you’re going to cover Asia or the Middle East, a couple of journalists who are familiar with those areas would be an asset to your team. If you plan to cover or speak out about topics related to the Caribbean, perhaps it would be a good idea to have some writers from the Caribbean on staff. (If you’re reading this blog post, please note, that I am Jamaican, based in Toronto, and up for the challenge.)

Some journalists just didn’t do their homework. Volkswagen did their homework. They consulted about 100 Jamaicans before they released the ads on Youtube.

So, if Jamaicans, by and large, aren’t offended, what is all the fuss about? I have no idea. If Jamaicans aren’t complaining, what’s the problem? I assure you, as Jamaicans, we are perfectly capable of speaking out about what we find offensive.

Some journalists and ad agency representatives are best to speak out about issues related to their own cultures if they have no understanding of the dynamics of other cultures.

Getting back to Barbara Lippert and Charles M. Blow, I wonder if they would have a problem with Mad White Jamaican who addressed the issue of stereotyping in his Youtube video that has gone viral:

Strong language alert. It’s funny but he is quite worked up about this issue.

Mad White Jamaican:  I’m really Jamaican (Video)

Update: Here  a real White Jamaican, Mad White Jamaican, responds to the Volkswagen “Be Happy” Commercial

Mad White Jamaican Re-mixes Volkswagen commercial.

In that regard, I would like to end by quoting a Jamaican proverb:

Cockroach nuh business inna fowl fight“.

Translation: Don’t get involved in things that don’t concern you. In other words, “Mind your own business”.

Anne Thornley-Brown is the President of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto based management consulting firm specializing in team building, executive retreats, and corporate event planning. Services are offered in 12 countries including Jamaica.

Anne’s writing has been featured on a number of outlets including Incentive Magazine and Cvent Blog, where she contributes 5 times a week. She has been interviewed on CBC Radio One and by a number of publications including the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the National Post, Profit Magazine, Canadian Business Magazine, The Times of India, and China Business Review.

Anne is also a professional actress and she has appeared in commercials for Casinorama, Canadian Women’s Foundation, and the Canadian Parapalegic Association. Her TV credits include the “Brothers” episode of Street Time in which she got to work with Giancarlo Esposito, the “All Around the Town” episode of the Mary Higgins Clark Mysteries, and the “Complicated” episode of the TV series Doc starring Billy Ray Cyrus.

Other Jamaican Bloggers Weigh in on Volkswagen Super Bowl Ads:

Also see:


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