There was surprising silence in the multicultural advertising community about Volkswagen's Super Bowl ad -- particularly in the black and particularly the black and Caribbean communities. The "Be Happy" spot, which features a white man speaking in a Jamaican accent, was dubbed as racist by a few industry watchers and mainstream news outlets ran with that.
The Today Show, Good Morning America and CNN gave the "controversy" considerable play, but there was little interesting debate. And the outcry was minimal. Indeed, at least one Caribbean group came out in support of the ad.
Tim Mahoney, CMO of Volkswagen, made a smart strategic move by appearing with Soledad O'Brien of CNN in anticipation of a backlash to add some context and positioning. In fact, The New York Times subsequently took some heat for Charles Blow's comments likening the ad to "blackface with voices." Consumers, meanwhile, sparred on social media about the merits of the ad, racism, accuracy of the patois and whether it was funny.
As a "Jamerican" -- American born Jamaican -- and unofficial ad industry watchdog of cultural missteps in consumer messaging, the ad made me happy. It portrayed a great positioning of the brand and reminded me of the attitude of the island. It reminded me of how American's go on vacation and come back and mimic the Jamaican accent -- not out of racism, but out of a desire to keep the happy, no-problem feeling that is foreign to many of us in the states.
I read that Deutsch conducted a focus group of 100 Jamaicans including Jimmy Cliff in the process. I commend Mr. Mahoney for courageously moving forward with the spot, while attempting to predict and prepare for the backlash by arming himself with research to validate and check for insensitivity.
When hear about controversial ads, the question that immediately comes to mind is who was anyone of color in the room when the ad was created or approved. If there is, that person is sometimes used as a scapegoat or shield, when the reality is that the dynamics of group think creates an environment in which it is hard to go against the norm of the group.
This also raises the question of who determines when an ad is racist. Is it the supposedly offended group?
What are the appropriate steps a team should take to responsibly ensure that a brand does not make the missteps that will send the PR department and potential customers into frenzy. As brands continue to borrow from other cultures and the world stage gets smaller and more intimate, best practices for team processes to encourage more dialogue and discussion upfront in a strategic and inclusive way regardless of the diversity "in the room" will help CMOs and agencies step boldly with great creative and leave other ideas where they belong, on the cutting room floor.