Volkswagen’s Super Bowl Ad an Unfunny Slight to Culture

The car company’s Super Bowl commercial is offensive to people of color, stupid—and just plain unfunny, says actress Pia Glenn.


This might be a bumpy ride for some of you. Buckle up. I’m here to tell you why the 2013 Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial, officially unveiled this week, is offensive to me.

First things first: I’m no hypersensitive ninny. In fact, I have taken many Sensitive Susans to task for attacking entertainment entities that deserve better than to become the target of some Internet-anonymous glorified diary entry, and my own satirical YouTube videos certainly have ruffled a few feathers.

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, let me mention that the only other time I have written an article for online presentation, the topic also was racism in national advertising. No, I do not have a personal vendetta against advertisers.

Volkswagen is not out to get us. I just think they’re being woefully ignorant, and that is So. Much. Worse.

In this Volkswagen commercial, we see a basic office-type workplace where a “smiley white dude” (’s phrasing, not mine) speaks to his co-workers in a heavy Jamaican accent, ostensibly in an effort to cheer them up with his “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” flavah, mon.

This happens in the elevator, by the vending machine, at desks, and, of course, in a shiny red Volkswagen in the money shot at the end. Pretty harmless stuff, right? Perhaps. IF there was a single person of color even remotely involved in the proceedings. There is an Asian man prominently featured, sure. But the accent in use is Jamaican, and to point to the Asian gentleman is to say that we (nonwhites) are all just “other” and I should be happy that Mr. Lee got a job and STFU.

Let me put it this way: if you are white and you use the word “n----r,” you think twice about saying it in front of a black person, right? I’ll phrase it differently for the pearl clutchers: Do any of you still stammer a bit on word selection at times? Did you ever make a conscious choice to stop saying “black” and start saying “African-American”? Don’t get nervous; there is no accusation here. Even if you feel the need to paint yourself as 100 percent post-racial, please admit that these things occur, and let’s move forward together. Your language as it relates to your intended audience bears consideration.

So, in the Volkswagen ad, here is the language of a group of people coming from the mouth of someone not of that group, addressed to an audience that does not include anyone of that group, for comedic purposes. Also known as minstrelsy. (I’m talking American minstrel here, with its inherent racial components, not medieval minstrel, which has a broader definition and is more about musicianship. If I offend any medieval minstrels with this this distinction, please feel free to bean me with your lute.)

At this point I will pause and acknowledge anyone who would like to point out what one could argue might be about half of the back of a black woman’s head in the elevator scene. Go ahead. I dare you.

One hundred percent of the blood currently boiling in my body is West Indian. I have been fortunate to have spent time soaking in the island sun, and I know that there are white people born there and also in South Africa and blah, blah, blah. But the ad saves us the trouble of hypothesizing any excuse for what we’re seeing by clarifying that the character is not a native of Jamaica, so scratch that. A co-worker asks White Guy, “Hey, Dave, you’re from Minnesota, right?”—which allows him to respond with ... and I’m going to attempt to phonetically type out the patois here, which is always problematic ... “Yes I! De land o’ten t’ousand lakes.”

I will not dispute that island vernacular often legitimately replaces “me” with “I.” I will, however, argue that this infraction of standard American grammar issuing forth from a white man’s mouth sounds like pure, unadulterated, offensive mockery. Had he been a Caucasian native of Jamaica? Fine. Had he referenced, even in the vaguest fashion, the deep spirituality that motivated the work and lifestyle of the iconic Bob Marley and the Wailers? Maybe. But apparently this carefree fella is so happy simply because he drops his r’s and drinks from a novelty mug. Or perhaps it is the other way around?

Context is everything, and we must consider the source. This is not someone’s random viral video that I might find stupid and simply close the browser window on. This is the penultimate commercial of a leading force (pun intended) in the Super Bowl ad game. People work for the better part of a year on these things. They both cost and generate money that we may not have language to describe yet. Do you know how many hands/minds/email inboxes this had to pass through from initial concept to official release? Can you imagine the auditions held for white men doing a Jamaican accent? Just picturing a casting director’s waiting room filled with hardworking actors going over these lines in this manner is pure comedy of the absurd. Yet, it happened.

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I call bullshit on Tim Mahoney, VW America marketing officer, who said on CNN’s Starting Point, “We actually talked to about 100 Jamaicans in the research, and we had a speech coach on-site to make sure it was as authentic as possible.” He stammered quite a bit in saying this, but I haven’t transcribed the quote as such because I happen to think it is derogatory to coopt an individual’s speech pattern, legitimate though it may be, to serve my own agenda.

And the fact that they went to the extreme length of, oh, I don’t know, standing outside a soca club in Bushwick at 3 a.m. to check in with the same number of people we count on for the answers to any given question on Family Feud is cold comfort. The dialect coach on set? Bravo, since we all know that the Jamaican accent has a high degree of difficulty, as evidenced in every movie, ever. Remind me to applaud the next person I meet in blackface who tells me that they referenced a photo of Wesley Snipes in order to burn their cork to the exact shade of five minutes past midnight.

Has anyone else noticed that I have yet to actually say “this commercial is racist”? That is because my whole point is that we need to stop using inflammatory language to label any and everything that gets in our way. “Racist” is almost too strong a term for this weak ad. You know what? The mean redneck who called me “girl” and denied me access to my own dressing room when I was headlining a musical tour even after I pointed out my picture and name above the title on the marquee? He was racist. My grandmother (may she rest in peace)? Kinda racist.

But a commercial can’t hurt my feelings, and it is certainly no targeted assault on the Caribbean community. It is far too stupid for that. This commercial commits the most egregious of sins. It is not funny.

Whoa. But comedy is subjective, right?

OK, I will try to defer to the positive comments on this commercial. Hmmm. They all seem to include some variation on “It made me smile” or “I like it” or “I didn’t mind it.” Really? This is the gold standard now? “I didn’t mind it”? Because, make no mistake, a Super Bowl ad should be the gold standard, by the advertisers’ own declaration. The industry itself is its own Flavor Flav, hyping us up for these yearly achievements. And then they instead present us with this unfunny slight to my culture?

If I wanted to be a bitch about it, I could really pick the thing apart. I could ask why, in an office setting, Jamaican-by-way-of-Minnesota Dave is the only one not seen working. Could he somehow be ... lazy? (Aren’t we all?) Perhaps he’s high? (Aren’t we all?)

Listen, I’m not asking for a perfect world with some Benetton landscape of multicultural utopians coasting down Tranquillity Road in their awesome Volkswagen humming “Kumbaya” in three-part harmony. But how about if a black person, nay, even the dreaded Sassy Black Woman, had been the one in the ad asking Dave where he’s from? Perfect? No. Racially sensitive? Noooooooo. But possibly preferable. Here’s another potential tweak: what if the idea and casting remained the same, but Dave was shown working in the office? What if he got people to smile by portraying his tasks as fun or not too taxing? Perhaps he holds up a manila folder and declares “I is all done wit me quahtahly repahts boss, and dey is IRIE!”

I don’t know. I’m spitballing here. But I’m also an unemployed actress-writer typing this with my thumbs. (Making notes to expand upon later when I’m less enraged and won’t hurl my computer out the window.)

If this commercial truly makes you smile, then smile on. Many people worked very hard and spent kajillions on it, so that’d better be one helluva smile. Clearly, I am not smiling. I am instead thinking of how to explain to my young nieces why this white man sounds like Grandpa but doesn’t look like Grandpa, and why in fact no one in this whole commercial looks like him, or them, or me. Or Us.