Last year, it was Darth Vader. This year, politically correct critics claim, it's Jar Jar Binks.
No sooner did Volkswagen release its $7.8 million (air time only), 60-second Super Bowl commercial on YouTube than self-appointed critics started slamming it as "racist."
The commercial's premise is that driving a Beetle makes you so happy, it turns you into a laid-back Rasta, complete with Jamaican accent.
'No worries, mon'
Its lead character, a white-bread office worker originally from Minnesota, goes around telling colleagues things like "No worries, mon, ever't'ing will be awright," "Julia, turn dat frown de udder way 'roun," and "Don't be no cloud on a sunny day." And that was enough to provoke an overnight firestorm of political correctness.
On yesterday's Today Show, MediaPost editor-at-large Barbara Lippert complained that the spot was guilty of "just saying 'Black people are happy.' Didn't anyone look at this? This is so racist."
In a roundtable discussion on CNN's Starting Point, New York Times columnist Charles Blow joined the chorus. "It's like blackface with voices," he declared. "I don't like that."
At the Wall Street Journal, Jamaican-born Christopher John Farley had even more to say. "It’s off-putting to see the Island spirit used as a punchline," he wrote. "The Jamaican aesthetic – shaped by such Jamaican-born notables as Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey and the revolutionary Nanny of the Maroons–is founded on positive vibration, not mindless happiness.
"There’s a big difference," he went on, "and it’s the gap between disposable fare like ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy' and Marley’s uplifting and thoughtful 'Three Little Birds,' with its famous lines 'Don’t worry about a thing/ ‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.'"
He also griped that the accent in the commercial reminded him of Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks, whose quasi-Caribbean accent and broken English were supposed to be funny (but most moviegoers found annoying).
Being accused of offensiveness was one thing EVP/CMO Tim Mahoney says VW worked hard to avoid. "We obviously did our homework to make sure we weren't offensive," he said. This "homework" consisted of
- consulting with 100 Jamaicans
- using a dialog coach on location to make sure the accents were authentic
- hiring Jimmy Cliff to sing a Jamaican-style cover of "C'mon, Get Happy."
But this misses the point, because the "racism" charges are not that VW got the accent wrong, but that they used it at all.
On the Today show, Lippert predicted that her and others' shrill criticisms would force VW to pull the spot.
This may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of VW's "homework" was producing two alternate commercials.
One, finished in December, shows a man who loves his VW convertible so much, he drives it top-down in a blizzard. The other, used as on online teaser, rips off the famous 1960s Coke spot by showing viral YouTube kvetchers gathered on a hilltop to extol their happiness.
It may be one of the rare cases this year when you won't know what the Super Bowl commercial will be like until you actually watch it on the Super Bowl.