Skip to content

Volkswagen’s Super Bowl Ad Isn’t ‘Racist,’ But Does Join a Long Fake Patois Tradition

Jimmy Cliff in Volkswagen TV commercial trailer

Let’s talk about manufuctured outrage. The New York Times columnist Charles Blow tends to share many of our personal views, but he often expresses them in a Manichean way that’s more like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson than it is like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. In a recent column, he described his opponents’ (admittedly abhorrent) ideas as “evil” and “devilish.” On an opinion staff where Thomas Friedman routinely starts his columns by lazily describing which city he visited this week, Blow stands out by often padding his word count with lengthy direct quotes, sometimes merely from other Times staffers. As the president himself once said, there isn’t a red America or a blue America; there’s just a slacker America.

So while we’re sure Blow is a good guy (in our experience, most people are!), the record suggests he’s more interested in fanning readers’ sense of superiority toward People Who Disagree With Us About Politics than he is in careful analysis — the very sort of analysis that might actually lead to better mutual understanding. It’s no surprise, then, that earlier this week on CNNBlow stepped away from his usual cast of “evil”-doers for the pressing national business of critiquing Super Bowl ads. Specifically, Blow said that a Volkswagen TV commercial starring a white man with a Jamaican accent is akin to “blackface with voices.” Since then, a pundit class that’s finally bored with discussing Beyoncé’s alleged lip-syncing at the inauguration has been busily debating whether the Volkswagen spot might be racist.

There are plenty of people who say it might be. Ricki Fairley-Brown, president of the multicultural marketing agency Dove Marketing, told USA Today the ad is “pretty horrific.” Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, chief hispanic marketing strategist at Walton Isaacson, an African-American, Gay/Lesbian and Hispanic agency, calls the ad “offensive.” A post on Jezebel throws around the word “racist” a lot without ever quite coming out and saying the ad is racist. 

Some who might be in a position to be offended, however, are more enthusiastic about the ad. One is Wykeham McNeill, Jamaica’s minister of tourism and entertainment, who reportedly called the commercial “a compliment” and is in co-branding talks with VW. Reggae singer and native Jamaican Sean Paul told TMZ that “to me it’s no different than the Italian accents in The Sopranos or the English accent in Guy Ritchie’s movies.” And reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, who sings The Partridge Family theme in the commercial and appears in the alternate ad at the top of the page, told CBS: “I think they did a fantastic job. And I think it’s going to be the uplifter of the Super Bowl.”

An unscientific survey, to be sure. As was VW’s poll of 100 Jamaicans (really, guys?). As was a survey of 15,000 participants, in which 93 percent said the ad is not offensive. And, yeah, Star Wars‘ Jar Jar Binks character was incredibly annoying.

As a music publication, however, we feel obligated to point out that in our world, non-Jamaicans have been copping Jamaican accents for eons now. Some are white. Some are black. Some are terrible. Some are great. Are they all doing something offensive? Maybe?

We’ll let sadly defunct rap group Das Racist tell it on “Fake Patois,” from 2010’s Shut Up, Dude mixtape: “KRS-One did a fake patois … Even Jay-Z did a fake patois / Bad Brains had a fake patois / My man Snow had a fake patois / Even Jim Carrey fuck with the patois … Even Busta Rhymes kinda sound patois.”

Are we about to start talking in a fake patois? No, mon. But we thought the commercial was kind of funny, and certainly no dumber than that Malibu rum “sunshine” ad that used to be on TV all the time. Ultimately, there are more important issues for our elite press corps to consider. Like whether Beyoncé will lip-sync at the Super Bowl.