Why Cries of Racism Won’t Sink Volkswagen’s Super Bowl Ad

Deutsch spot still likely to air

Headshot of Tim Nudd

For Volkswagen, one of the most celebrated Super Bowl advertisers of recent years, it's been a tough 24 hours. After the company released its 2013 Super Bowl spot (posted below) on Monday morning—showing a white Minnesota office worker speaking like a happy Jamaican—it was met with mostly favorable if not particularly ecstatic reviews. (You can't make "The Force" every year, after all.) But soon, there were rumblings that it might be racist, or at least seen as such. Among the critics was New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who said Monday on CNN that the fake accent was like "blackface with voices."

The criticism has become more prominent, if not necessarily more widespread, in the hours since then. In response, VW has said it talked to 100 Jamaicans during the research process, and has now added this statement:

"The concept of Volkswagen's 'Get Happy' advertisement is to put a smile on your face, and continues to build upon the heritage of 'human stories, told simply.' The protagonist in the commercial is intentionally meant to portray an upbeat perspective and intelligence as he influences his coworkers to 'Get Happy.' His accent is intended to convey a relaxed, cheerful demeanor while encouraging a positive attitude as the antidote to a tough Monday.  Everyone can relate to being in an office and being ground down by the pressures of work and 'Get Happy' brings an optimistic, bright spirit into an otherwise mundane day."

Of course, in terms of the ad's fate, what matters most now isn't whether it's racist but whether it's perceived that way. In that regard, the indicators are good so far for Volkswagen. In a Today.com poll, 93 percent of respondents (out of 15,000 votes cast) said the ad is not racist. Likewise, the YouTube page is being flooded with many more positive comments than negative ones—many from people claiming to be Jamaican. (The likes-to-dislikes ratio on the video is also impressive: 2,443 to 168.)

While it won't say so explicitly, Volkswagen can lean on three facts here: First, the Jamaican accent is not exclusively a black accent. This technically makes it difficult to call the ad racist, even though its humor is racial—i.e., it clearly derives from showing a white guy talking like a black guy.

Second, perhaps due to the laid-back reputation of the island nation, the Jamaican accent is simply not seen by many Americans as an offensive one to imitate. By contrast, an ad with white Minnesotans talking in stereotypical Asian accents clearly wouldn't fly.

Third, the entire tone of the ad is positive and feel-good. This makes it less likely for people to want to punish Volkswagen for it. The theme and very title of the ad, "Get Happy," is a rebuke to critics who would want to spoil the party.

If push comes to shove and VW does pull the ad, the automaker will still appear on the game. VW marketing officer Tim Mahoney told USA Today: "To minimize the risk, we have a backup."

It won't come to that. VW will ride this one out.

The Fans. The Brands. Social Good. The Future of Sports. Don't miss the upcoming Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit and Upfronts, a live virtual experience on Nov. 16-19. Early-bird passes available until Oct. 26. Register now

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.