The Least Happy Jamaican: On Volkswagen’s Super Bowl Commercial

By Guest Contributor Suzanne Persard

Am I the last Jamaican to miss the happiness train?

After millions of hits on YouTube and a whirl of international attention, arguably the most popular commercial Volkswagen has ever aired, has been approved by “100 Jamaicans,” hailed as humorous by hundreds of other Jamaicans, and endorsed by the Jamaican Minister of Tourism.

The ad features a white man from Minnesota speaking exaggeratedly in patois, urging his unhappy coworkers to become happier with phrases like, “Yuh know what dis room needs? A smile!”  Clearly, this is Volkswagen’s way of telling you, Jamaicans are happy! You should be happy, too! Buy a 2013 Volkswagen Beetle and get happy!

According to Volkswagen, those 100 Jamaicans were involved in the screening of the ad so the German automobile giant could guarantee it wasn’t racist. A speech coach was also involved, according to Volkswagen, because to parody an entire people you’ve clearly got to make sure you’ve nailed that exotic accent.

With overwhelming approval from the public in the form of thousands of virtual “likes,” and Jamaicans posting on YouTube and Facebook with notes like, “I’m Jamaican, and I approve!,” it would seem that Volkswagen has won the battle waged by blatant racialized mockery disguised as ambiguous feel-good humor.

To be fair, there are Jamaicans of many races, including Indo-Jamaicans, Chinese Jamaicans, multi-racial Jamaicans, and yes, white Jamaicans. But Volkswagen’s aim wasn’t to present the multiculturalism of the island; instead, the ad was intentionally a caricature of Jamaican people, reinforcing a national identity typecast as ganja-smoking, lazying-away-in-the-sun-at-their-own-pace island folk. You know, just like those clay souvenirs of wide-toothed Rastafarians with enormous spliffs dangling from their mouths or key chains embossed with smiley faces sprouting dreadlocks and a byline exclaiming, “No Problem!”

Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show responded to his colleagues’ uneasiness with the ad by saying, “I thought, ‘If you buy this car, it puts you in a happy place, and what’s happier than the memories we all have of being on beautiful islands on island time?”  Matt might want to Google “neo-colonialism.” He should also check out Jamaica for Sale and Life and Debt.

The tourism that Lauer references in the commercial is not without consequences. The relationship between tourism and the Jamaican economy is complicated; it’s the Catch-22 of post-colonialism where rich Americans and Europeans come spend their money on an island whose people need these dollars.  Tourists oblivious to their role in perpetuating a system that allows them to consume and walk away unscathed, while the realities of poverty plague an entire country. For the tourists that can afford luxurious stays in Negril and Ocho Rios, at the cost of thousands of US dollars per vacation, the average Jamaican earns the equivalent of $1 US per hour constructing these hotels. You can be sure they aren’t working on island time.

What about that easygoing, laid-back island attitude?  At a rate of 13 percent unemployment, conflating an easygoing attitude with poverty is a detrimental conclusion. To put the gravity of Jamaica’s poverty in perspective, the US unemployment rate is about 8 percent; an unemployment rate of 13 percent is devastatingly high for a country you could pick up and drop in the middle of Connecticut.

In addition to the problematic generalization of Jamaicans as happy-go-lucky and carefree, our accent seems to lend itself to a special attention for parodying. (Remember Miss Cleo, who skyrocketed to psychic television fame with her unconvincing accent? And everyone who thought they could pull off a Cool Runnings accent?) The fact that patois is a dialect and not a language implicitly allows the media to mock the Jamaican accent in a way that would be unacceptable and unabashedly racist for any other culture.

As a dialect, speaking patois is immediately delegitimized because, according to post-colonial doctrine, English is the superior and the obvious standard. Our dialect is a stepchild to the more sophisticated speech of English and, consequently, we aren’t to be taken nearly as seriously as all those other folks who are speaking properly. Patois is assumed to be the language of the lower-class, uneducated masses, a highly problematic assumption given Jamaica’s post-colonial history. Essentially, speaking the Queen’s English is the aspiration; otherwise our very speech is deficient. Mocking our accent must be more acceptable then because our dialect is inherently downgraded via post-colonialism.

Those “100 Jamaicans” Volkswagen claims to have screened might say that we are, and hundreds more on social media sites might continue hitting that virtual “like.” As a Jamaican exhausted by parodies of our feel-good, catering-to-tourists-sipping-piña-coladas island culture, I’m ready to endure the blows for sticking to the unpopular opinion on this one.  We are “out of many, one people,” but a sampling of a population is not sufficient to speak for an entire people; most of all, they do not speak for me. Stamps of approval from your Jamaican friend, major media outlets that claim we’re being “too sensitive” about race, and Volkswagen’s focus group do not equate to a post-racial society where mocking a national identity is acceptable. The very idea that Volkswagen believes a focus group is capable of screening racism–and that racism can even be screened–is in itself telling.

The reasons for complicity may be manifold, and the double-edged, neo-colonial sword of Caribbean tourism remains a social and economic conundrum, clearly reinforced by Western projections of so-called harmless stereotypes.  But ads like this present an important opportunity for interrogating the structures bolstering racism, resisting mainstream narratives, and demanding accountability. When Ashton Kutcher played the role of Raj the Bollywood Producer in a similarly offensive Pop Chips ad, the masses overwhelmingly declared it to be racist and the ad was pulled.  So where’s the public outcry? Are we simply as happy and carefree as Volkswagen says we are?

In the meantime, I’d like to talk to those 100 other Jamaicans.  And while I’m at it, Matt Lauer.

  • http://yrihf.com John Bailo

    I want to know why he didn’t call the VW his “transport”.

  • http://we-are-in-it.tumblr.com/ themiddlespaces

    Since this commercial starting making the rounds, I have been arguing about it with folks that want to see it as “just funny” or excuse it with the fact that there are white Jamaicans. As Suzanne points out, it is not like this commercial is trying to depict a diverse Jamaican community. Whether there are white people who may actually talk like this is beside the point – for the Americans this commercial is played for the point is not for them to think of this guy as a potential example of a Jamaican, but mock the possibility of his being “like a Jamaican” (which I put in quotes as to a avoid the suggestion that I believe this characterization is inclusive). The humor of the commercial is meant to come from the juxtaposition of the tall cheese-fed Minnesota white dude with the patois coming his out of his mouth (along with the dissonance between his attitude and the office environment). That juxtaposition relies on a particular characterization of Caribbean blackness that is NOT flattering.

    To me the problem here is not the use of the patois itself (and as someone else pointed out, it is not just patois, but include Rasta-speak – which reinforces a misconception that all Jamaicans are Rasta), but that instead of opening up a point of identification and solidarity, it is actually narrows a people down.

    I explored this very topic in a piece I wrote for Sounding Out last year on Das Racist’s “Fake Patois” – http://soundstudiesblog.com/2012/04/09/everyone-i-listen-to-fake-patois/

    • Cheryl

      I find it interesting that you take offense to the commercial, but not to the commentator’s treatment of “Patois” as a dialect. This is incredibly problematic in terms of reinforcing her argument–and yours (not to mention the “tall cheese-fed Minnesota white dude” comment which seems to be a perfect example of what commentingacct is talking about).

      As an aside, I would also like to mention that in your piece on “Fake Patois” you talk about how “Snow withstood attacks on his authenticity throughout his career and tried to shore it up through his incarceration narratives and associations with blacks of Caribbean descent.” Yes, but you forget to mention the culture of Toronto and the fact that Snow was a successful performer in Jamaica. The Jamaican music industry celebrates individuals who can roll with the Patwa–and especially without falling into the horrible “no problem mon” trap (which the commercial importantly avoids). Folks from Deejay Dominic to Gentleman have no reason to defend their authenticity because Patwa does not function in Jamaica the same way it does in other parts of the world–especially the US. Canada–and Toronto particularly–is very different. This is perhaps a round about way of coming back to the fact that your read of the commercial as negative exists in a very different cultural space than Jamaica.

      • http://we-are-in-it.tumblr.com/ themiddlespaces

        Word. I hear you. Context is important, and I have no doubt that it reads differently in different cultural spaces. However, I have a hard time seeing how the commercial avoids the “no problem, mon” trap when it seems to me that that is the whole commercial (business is bad, but he’s still happy).

        I will admit I am not familiar with the politics of calling something language vs. dialect – so not sure why calling it a “dialect” is necessarily negative. It seems to me that either way it is _how_ it is being used that is the problem.

        • Cheryl

          One might see him as positive in the face of adversity–you are right, it really is about context. The issue of “dialect” is a much longer conversation. All I can say is that Kamau Brathwaite on “Nation Language” is a helpful–and important–text.

    • http://twitter.com/Commentingacct commentingaccount

      I don’t think the fact that the Rastafari language was included reinforces stereotypes, because I’m quite sure that its presence was not noticed by most people watching. Its inclusion reinforces my point above about the nuance in the ad that is welcome and to be congratulated.

      How does the use of patois narrow a people down when 90+% of people in Jamaica speak this language? It actually validates a language that needs validating, given that a frighteningly high proportion of the people who speak it reject it as a respectable means of communication. The fact that it was written so well and spoken so well by foreigners is also validation (unfortunately or fortunately), as some Jamaican youngsters lauding the ad said:

      “Too often we are ashamed of embracing what it is that makes us unique…”
      “We are ashamed to speak our own Patois, particularly when we speak publicly on television or radio….Instead, what we do is try to be like [tourists] but that is not what they want. They want the real feel of Jamaica.” http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130131/lead/lead5.html

      Could they be right? Certainly there is a desire among many foreigners for the exotic, but there are also those who look for some kind of authenticity (inasmuch as this is ever attainable), and there’s nothing more quintessentially Jamaican than patois.

  • nardis

    Also notice strategic usage of E. Asian participant to help avoid impression of racism.

    • ModernWizard

      “It’s not racist! There’s an East Asian guy doing it too!” Yeah, I noticed that. >_>

  • jessica hanson

    I haven’t spent much time in Jamaica in the last 10 years, but 13% unemployment sounds pretty optimistic to me, unless it’s including “self-employment”, like selling juice and snacks in the bus park. This is older but estimates it at more like 46%: http://www.jamlink.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=Thinking-out-loud.html&Itemid=61

  • http://www.facebook.com/debbie.epps.67 Debbie Epps

    Oh My Goodness!!! How in the WORLD could you put such a negative spin on something that was meant to be positive and fun? Talk about taking something COMPLETELY out of context! The commercial was supposed to put a smile on your face…not be hurtful, racist or a make a political statement. You actually stated that the “generalization of Jamaicans as happy-go-lucky and carefree” is “problematic”. WHAT???? I grew up in the New Jersey area and knew quite a few Jamaicans who were ganja smoking, dreadlock wearing, patois speaking, easy going, fun-loving people. Let’s face it…many stereotypes are based on some form of exaggerated reality. Take a step back…take a deep breath and “be easy, ‘mon.”

  • lbaxter@cutfruitexpress.com

    Talk to me!!

  • serenada

    It’s not a dialect, it’s a creole, with its own vocabulary and grammar structures. Don’t jump on *their* train and belittle the validity of Patois.

    You can talk to me, if you like. I saw a remarkably well-written ad where someone paid attention to the grammar and pronunciation of Patois, which…when was the last time that happened? It is possible to do an accent without mocking. It is possible to do an accent and throw a thumbs up at the same time, and this is at worst, an interesting choice to write well, and at best the biggest PR we’ve gotten that doesn’t rest on the running shoes of one Mr Bolt (love him as I may, that’s a huge responsibility for one young man).

    If you want to see what makes me mad, look up the Kellog Cinnamon Whatever ad with the dreadlocked DJ cinnamon stick and the straight up “No problem mon!” level parody of Patois as well as the happy dancing feel good atmosphere in which we all live all the time, and decorated with tiki statues to boot.

    That–that is irritating purloining of the stereotypes of my nationality.

    The VW ad was “just” an American guy doing a decent job at the accent and with the dialogue of my home.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gzsy8bMJPrA

  • http://twitter.com/Commentingacct commentingaccount

    Hi Suzanne,

    I am a Jamaican living in Jamaica and feel it’s important to engage with you on this. I agree with a lot of what you say, but not your ultimate point. Your rendering of the political economy of Jamaica is correct. I just have a hard time linking this to the actual advertisement I saw in a way that makes me condemn it.

    Funnily enough, I thought the ad had a bit of nuance to it – for example, the language was not just patwa – there was also Rastafari language (“di I”). I guess that’s not surprising, given that the speech consultant was a Ras himself. I also think that there was mockery of the white man himself in the ad, e.g., when his colleagues remind him that he’s from Minnesota. I felt the ad was actually quite self-aware – could the writers also have been mocking the very idea of foreigners who engage with the exotic and return thinking they in fact have some claim to it (as manifested here through language)? The writers knew full well they were playing with stereotypes, of course, but might have done so in such a way as to up end them, not reinforce them. A bit of Anansi action, perhaps?

    Re patwa: it seems like you are agreeing with the mindset that you are decrying by calling it a “fact” that patwa is a dialect. Linguists tell us that the decision to label something a dialect or a language is a matter of politics. Those who do consider it a dialect are usually those who are claiming a modernity that accepts as little of our African heritage as possible. Finally, I didn’t hear anyone mocking patwa in the ad – I thought the guy was speaking “exaggeratedly” in order to allow viewers to understand and to get the words and sounds right.

    My 2 cents – I hope I haven’t misunderstood your argument (too much!).

  • Keisha

    I loved this post and agree with everything that you said including suggesting that Matt Laur (and really should be required in college) watch “Life and Debt”. Many Americans and Europeans of all hues are oblivious to the complicated history (the World Bank and IMF) and effect of tourism in the Caribbean. How many islands were pushed into, what some would call, neocolonialist roles in order to “stabilize” their economy. Also, the reason why many dont see an issue with going on a cruise or staying at an all inclusive.

    Also, as a linguistic anthropologist, I must say that linguists do see Jamaican Creole (Patois) as a creole language and not a dialect.

  • Cheryl

    One thing: Patwa is a language. Not a dialect. Though I agree with much of what you say here, I think that one of the positive things about the commercial was a recognition of the significance of Patwa–something that would be useful to take notice of here in Jamaica where letter after letter to the editor decries the horror of the Jamaican language as something to be avoided at all costs and certainly not used as a language of instruction.