What would the Super Bowl be without a commercial controversy? For this Sunday’s game, contention swirls around a Volkswagen ad entitled "Get In. Get Happy" featuring the music of legendary reggae star Jimmy Cliff, who catapulted to international fame in the 1972 in the film “The Harder They Come” and forty one years later, is a strong contender for the 2013 Best Reggae Album Grammy for his aptly titled release, “Rebirth”.
A 45-second VW commercial teaser posted on YouTube two weeks ago featured Cliff singing “Get Happy”, the theme song to the 1970s ”The Partridge Family” TV show, in an attempt to cheer up an eclectic cast famous for their emotional meltdowns on YouTube including a cat loving lady seeking a partner on eHarmony.com, and an irate llama.
The teaser was followed by this week’s YouTube release of the "Get In. Get Happy" commercial (above, top), featuring a white Minnesotan who adopts a Jamaican accent, much to the initial confusion of his grumpier coworkers some of whom eventually assume similar inflections, accompanied by an easy going, laid back attitude, after riding in his Volkswagen.
The faux Jamaican accents adopted by the Minnesotan and another Caucasian as well as an Asian coworker in the commercial and their suddenly sunny dispositions ignited a mini firestorm of criticism. According to statistics provided by the Jamaica Information Service 91% of Jamaicans claim African ancestry (which doesn’t include the 7.3% classified as mixed race backgrounds; East Indians, Whites and Chinese comprise the remainder of the island’s populace).
Jamaica-born Christopher John Farley wrote on the Wall Street Journal blog , “it’s off-putting to see the island spirit used as a punch line; the Jamaican aesthetic is founded on positive vibration, not mindless happiness. New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow called the ad the equivalent of “black faces with voices” on CNN’s "Starting Point"  with Soledad O'Brian. In an appearance on the Today show , ad expert Barbara Lippert Editor-At-Large, Mediapost.com show labeled the commercial “racist.” Lippert predicted the VW ad would not run on the Super Bowl.
But the punditry's assessment of the commercial is not how many here in Jamaica view the ad as well as Volkswagen itself who test marketed the spot to some one-hundred Jamaicans. “The concept is you are transformed, you get happy when you see life through the windshield of a Volkswagen, whether it’s the Passat, the Beetle or the Jetta,” Kevin E. Mayer, Vice President, Marketing Volkswagen Group of America, Inc, told Billboard.biz. “There was talk initially of using Cliff’s original music but we wanted to tap into different aspects of pop culture. The Partridge Family is likely remembered by the Boomer generation. Perhaps very different types of people will connect with Jimmy and then the YouTube folks are best known to a more youthful crowd so we felt like the ad brought distinct aspects of pop culture together.”
Mayer says the commercial posted on YouTube will likely be the version to air during the game while a 90-second adaptation of the Jimmy Cliff teaser will run before the main event. “That song is so happy, so perfect for our brand we decided to buy an additional unit to give us time before the game to run it,” enthused Mayer.
Following criticisms of the commercial, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Wykeham McNeill issued a statement supporting the ad as “a tribute to reggae’s popularity worldwide”. He saluted Cliff for being “a true Jamaican ambassador” and urged people everywhere to “do exactly what the commercial portrays, tap into your inner Jamaican and get happy.”
Meanwhile, a rather lighthearted clip uploaded to YouTube on Feb. 1 by the Jamaican owned Caribbean hotel chain Sandals Resorts International called “The Germaican” spoofs the VW ad: after riding in his Volkswagen, the commercial’s Jamaican protagonist speaks with a distinctly German accent, adds sauerkraut to his jerk chicken, dances the polka in lederhosen and relinquishes island time, arriving at work 7 minutes early.
Interesting to note that Sandals founder Butch Stewart and his son, Sandals CEO Adam Stewart are, respectively, the chairman and CEO of ATL Automotives, the exclusive dealers of Volkswagen in Jamaica.
On the ground in Kingston, Jamaica, the epicenter of reggae, Billboard.biz conducted several interviews among various sectors of the island’s music industry. Each expressed support for the commercial, interspersed with a few concerns.
“Our motto here is ‘out of many, one people’ so there’s a portion of the Jamaican population that actually looks, thinks and speaks like these guys so I don’t see the big deal,” says Touter Harvey, keyboardist with the veteran reggae band Inner Circle.
“I feel proud when people use a Jamaican accent, whether in jest or seriously, because it means our culture has resonated to the point where others want to copy it, I don’t know of anyone doing Bulgarian accents,” notes Carlette DeLeon, Director of Public Relations at Headline Entertainment, a Kingston based PR company and booking agency whose clients include Sean Paul and Damian Marley.
Seretse Small, CEO of Griot Music, the local franchise holder for the Global Battle of the Bands competition, which was won by Jamaica’s Di Blueprint Band in 2012, says the ad reaffirms “how unique our country is.” “But what burns me,” Small explained, “is we still have a basic stereotype of Jamaican culture, which is not as sophisticated as I know it to be. We are not pushing the wattage of what makes us full of so many beautiful things, so the ad is somewhat simplistic in that way, which compels us to have discussions here about how we are portrayed and to try and get more representations out there.”
Steven Newland, lead singer of the reggae band Rootz Underground views the Super Bowl commercial as building upon Jamaica’s dominance of the 2012 Olympics where the country earned four gold, four silver and four bronze medals. “It’s like VW was sitting in their boardroom saying ‘hmmm, Jamaicans were the stars of the biggest sporting event in 2012 and here comes the next biggest sporting event, what can we do in the sports fans’ mind that connects this bigness?” And it’s almost like Jamaicans fit into the laidback stereotype because we should have been the ones to come up with this idea and license it to Volkswagen.”
The singer hopes Jamaican powers will maximize the vast exposure they receive via this commercial “by connecting the dots to actual investments for the island and continually tapping into the power of our culture and its potential financial windfall.”
Volkswagen’s Mayer noted that the company will collaborate with the Jamaica Tourist Board to create a Be Happy Travel Package, the details of which will be revealed after the Super Bowl.