Is Racism the Big Trend in Super Bowl Commercials This Year, or What?

Lesley says, “It sure is great living here in post-race America! GO FOOTBALL!”

THAT’S RACIST! Oh good, now you’re paying attention.

Back when I was a wee lass idly roaming the mean streets of suburban Broward County, Florida, we were told — I don’t remember by who, but it was obviously some authority figure since I remember it so strongly — that should Stranger Danger even rear its creepy van-candy offering head and try to drag us to a shadowy (or in my case, lotion-applying) doom, we should not yell “HELP” because, well, people tend to ignore cries of help, because humanity is a species barren of care and empathy for its fellow beings.

Instead we were told to yell “FIRE” or even “RAPE” because these are words likely to make people turn and look. Which is, actually, kind of sick, but there you are.

I don’t know if “FIRE” or “RAPE” even work anymore to make people look. I would hope so, because I don’t know what else is left. I guess you could still yell “THAT’S RACIST,” because it sure seems like anytime somebody says it, everybody turns to see what’s going on (and then probably to tell the person why it’s NOT racist, whatever it is, and THEY’RE racist for calling it racist, ad nauseam).

Which brings us to these two commercials, due to be officially aired during this weekend’s Super Bowl, that are currently grabbing just that kind of attention.

The first is this Volkswagen ad (which was also thoroughly discussed on xoJane this week by Demetria L. Lucas and which I totally to my undying shame overlooked until after I’d written this—I blame the flood) in which a doofy white guy goes to work on a Monday and spends the whole day encouraging his colleages to relax and be happy, all in a slight (but easily understandable to American ears) Jamaican Patois accent.

The response wasn’t uniform at all; the commercial drew criticism from some folks, who called it out for exploiting a racist stereotype, and shrugs from others, who found it funny and cute. Then yesterday, the Jamaican government actually endorsed the commercial, calling it, “a perfect illustration of Jamaican culture’s global reach and our uncharacteristic penchant to be happy even in challenging situations.”

The Jamaican government — and maybe even individual Jamaicans — may be fine with it. We also can’t discount the reality that tourism represents over 50% of their foreign exchange earnings and supplies a quarter of all the jobs. Thus it’s not terribly surprising that the government would be quick to make clear that they don’t have a problem with with ad.

But it’s also worth noting that Jamaican folks might not see this commercial as an explicitly racial thing, because while Jamaica is a majority Black country, it is also home to folks of many races, nearly all of whom will occasionally speak in the Patois of the Volkswagen commercial in casual interactions.

However, there is another perspective on this story, because as Demetria pointed out, the commercial is not a Jamaican commercial, nor is it advertising a Jamaican product. The commercial is made by a German car company for American audiences, and this is where things get complicated — because while the reality of Jamaican culture may not be a racist stereotype, when filtered through the lens of American history and culture, things change.

The stereotype of the “happy darky” dates back to the US Civil War, and was spread via propaganda and other popular media to make the argument that slavery was a cool thing because the slaves were way enjoying their enslavement and oppression and inability to own property or have families or not be considered the property of a more worthy man or make basically any decisions affecting their lives. The premise was that Black folks were too intellectually stunted to be able to care for themselves, so slavery was actually doing them a favor by protecting them from the big complicated white man’s world.

It’s worth noting that slavery happened in Jamaica too — in fact it happened in such numbers that by 1800 slaves outnumbered the colonizing white plantation owners twenty to one, and thus they began a series of uprisings that caused enough destruction that they eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the British Empire in 1834 — while here in the US, President Lincoln would not issue the Emancipation Proclamation for another thirty years.

At any rate, the “happy darky” stereotype was a pervasive one, and adding to its horrors is the fact that these joyful slaves were often portrayed in media by white men in blackface who acted out the most extreme caricatures for a cheering audience, right up into the 1950s and 60s.

Fast forward a few decades to now, and we have a Volkswagen ad that some are calling “blackface with voices,” and conceptually that’s not off the mark — the commercial exploits an American stereotype of a cheerful happy-go-lucky Jamaican and puts that character in the body of a white guy from Minnesota. This is supposed to be funny because, ha, he’s a white guy from Minnesota pretending to be Black (given that, for most Americans, Jamaicans who speak Patois must necessarily be Black, even though this isn’t true). White people who pretend to be Black are EXTRA SILLY, always.

Honestly, the whole premise skates uncomfortably close to the “happy darky” caricature for me.

But hey, Volkswagen’s not the only company catching racist hell for its Super Bowl ad. Now Coca-Cola has raised the ire of Muslim and Arab-American groups for its “Coke Chase” spot, in which a group of Arabs and camels (yes, really) wandering through the desert see a giant bottle of Coke glistening in the distance. Next three other groups — some cowboys on horseback, a bunch of bizarre dystopian-future dudes in the vein of Mad Max, and a tour bus full of showgirls (at least I think they’re showgirls — initially I thought they were drag queens) appear on the scene, all competing and chasing the bottle of Coke.

This ad has an interactive element in which viewers can vote to pick who will “win” the chase at the yet-to-be-seen conclusion (why they’re bothering, I have no idea — the showgirls will win). The problem? The group of Arabs and their camels are not among the groups you can vote for. Which, I gotta say, is weird.

The criticism has been that this absence reinforces the American idea that Arabs are backward people yanking unwilling camels through a desert — not real players in the big grownup world. Not including this group in the voting, even though we see them clearly competing in the ad, relegates them to being part of the landscape, a piece of the desert as inanimate as the sand itself, and thus it makes them caricatures instead of characters.

So here’s my question, though — do you ever wonder if advertisers do racist shit just to make us look? Given that neither of these commercials are particularly earth-shattering examples of genius, is it possible that companies have become bored of the usual controversies and are now trying out racism as a viral-marketing technique?

I have a hard time believing that this is a conscious, pointed effort to be offensive; I think it’s more likely to be plain old unexamined casual racism resulting in some poorly considered ideas. Not that this makes it any more acceptable; this kind of casual, no-big-deal, why-are-you-so-sensitive racism is the backbone on which institutionalized oppressions rely.

So yeah, while the kneejerk reaction to these commercials may be that the criticism is overwrought and absurd, the deeper reality is that even hard to detect forms of racism—stealthier ones than these even—-have a measureable effect on our culture and how we perceive people of different races and backgrounds. Intentional or not, I believe that’s always worth talking about.


by Lesley

Originally appeared at xoJane

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About xoJane, Jane Pratt's lifestyle site for women, is not about changing yourself to fit any mold of what others think you should be. It is about celebrating who you are. Like Sassy and Jane before it, is written by a group of women (and some token males) with strong voices, identities and opinions, many in direct opposition to each other, who are living what they are writing about.


  1. I think everyone just needs to chill and put some rye in their coke. 😉
    Racism, yeah, whatever.
    By the way, camels are notoriously stubborn just like the people who see racists everwhere they look.

  2. As someone worked in advertising creating campaigns, what offended me the most is what wretched concepts these commercials are. I don’t understand what’s funny or even relevant about the Volkswagon ad. What does a white guy talking and acting like a Jamaican have to do with “German Engineering?” At least pretend that you’re trying to sell me a car! And Coke? In a lame attempt to be “inclusive” (and I’m betting that is the reasoning behind the casting in that ad because Coke has played that fiddle for years now), they instead offended because, lacking imagination, they turned characters into caricatures. It’s a delicate line you walk when creating ads, especially when aiming for humor, but you must start with a good sense of humor AND a good concept. In the meantime, when any ad offends you, the best revenge is to boycott the product. In cases like these, that is the language that registers.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    I just saw the commerical again yesterday during the Super Bowl. Odd that in terms of “racial” images the article failed to mention that the cowboys were led by a Hispanic man. The showgirls include women of color. I’m not so sure the commercial is evidence of no progress at all.

  4. Joe Anonymous says:

    I’m glad that someone else called these two particular commercials out. They struck me as completely racist.

  5. ManofReason says:

    Call me knee-jerk. Your criticism is overwrought and absurd as you said. Quit looking for the racist boogeyman under the bed.

  6. PursuitAce says:

    I always thought racism was like pornography. I’ll know it when I see (or hear it). Apparently it’s more like the theory of relativity. I’ll know it after it’s explained to me…maybe…

  7. wellokaythen says:

    As for the man and the camel, one could argue that it’s the height of Western arrogance to equate a camel with backwardness in the first place. The domesticated camel is the product of thousands of years of genetic engineering, centuries of technological development, and is an incredibly valuable resource. You would not look down on camels if you lived in an actual desert. The glorious SUV that Americans practically worship as the peak of advanced technology is much less reliable over the terrain that camels regularly cross, especially if you factor in such things as fuel efficiency. (And you can eat a camel more easily than an SUV.) People with camels don’t depend on people with cars, but people with cars depend on societies with camels. That should say something.

    Is it really more “backwards” and “un-civilized” to own a camel than, say, a thoroughbred horse? Even if the owner of the horse is married to a man who runs for President?

  8. wellokaythen says:

    Hmm. Maybe, maybe not. It depends on if you define “Jamaican” as a racial group or a subcultural one or a linguistic one. It also depends on what you assume about the audience. It would seem the most racist if the assumed audience was white.

    I’m wondering how any commercial could possibly portray any person of color without being accused of racism. If it portrayed a happy African American, then there’s the “happy slave” racism. If the black person is upset, then it’s the “fear of the angry black man” racism. If it showed an African American in a mainstream, well-adjusted, successful role, then it’s tokenist racism. If a commercial pretends that society is color-blind, then it’s denying the existence of racism, which is racist.

    Can someone please provide me with a good example of a commercial with a person of color that cannot be accused of racism? You can just invent one if you can’t find one. I bet it’s impossible.

    The Jamaican government likes the commercial, but even then we can’t take Jamaicans’ word for it? I’m going to follow the lead of some actual Jamaicans on this one. Perhaps when trying to figure out if something is racist, we should hear from people who are the most likely to be offended?

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