Volkswagen's Super Bowl commercials the last couple years have drawn wide praise, but its newest spot has garnered some cries of racism.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow termed VW's "Get Happy" spot featuring a white office worker with a fake Jamaican accent "blackface with voices."
The commercial, released Monday on YouTube, shows a white Minnesota worker speaking like a happy Jamaican. His attitude becomes infectious to those around him, and the ad ends with him driving a red VW Beetle with formerly stressed co-workers turned happy.
The ad's theme plays off the VW teaser spot released last week that showed tantrum-pitching rants by people on YouTube who later join a "get happy parade." The tirades included the 2007 meltdown of former minor league manager Phillip Wellman at AT&T Field in Chattanooga.
Dr. Keith Richards, UC Foundation associate professor of marketing at UTC, said advertisers don't want to be disrespectful, but they like to be edgy.
"You want to stay away from legal issues and offensive matters," he said. Richards said he didn't think the VW ad is offensive, noting it poked fun at a number of people.
VW has defended the spot in a statement, saying "the protagonist in the commercial is intentionally meant to portray an upbeat perspective and intelligence as he influences his co-workers to 'Get Happy.'"
Tim Mahoney, VW of America's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said the company consulted with 100 Jamaicans and used a dialect coach to ensure the accuracy of the actors' accents, according to The Huffington Post.
"We obviously did our homework to make sure that we weren't offensive," he said.
USA Today reported Mahoney also said VW ad agency Deutsch LA has one or two alternatives set aside in case the car company chooses to go with something else.
"To minimize the risk, we have a backup," Mahoney said.
UTC's Richards said making a clear statement clarifying the ad's intentions is essential. He also said that having a backup plan isn't unusual.
"It's so expensive," Richards said about Super Bowl spots. "These are high stakes." The average cost of a 30-second spot this year is $3.5 million.
Richards said companies want to be the one everybody is talking about the day after the game.
"You see clever ads push the envelope," he said.
The UTC professor added that it's interesting VW released its Super Bowl ad on the Internet prior to the game.
"You get it in the public eye much sooner," he said, noting companies also want to leave a good impression.