"Where are you from?" Thus begins the conversation and the constant reminder that it's not just what you say, but how you say it, especially when the content is delivered with a Caribbean accent. As a Caribbean islander transplanted in New York, I am often perplexed by the response even the slightest lilt can elicit, from curiosity to downright imitation. But is imitation always the highest form of flattery? The recent Super Bowl ad by Volkswagen seems to have reignited the discussion.
Earlier this week Volkswagen USA unveiled its "Get In, Get Happy" commercial. The ad features a young man who acknowledges his home state is Minnesota (the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes), but speaks with a Jamaican accent and uses patois when addressing his co-workers.
The Caribbean accent is no newcomer to the American media or advertising landscape. One effective campaign that readily comes to mind is the Uncola strategy by 7UP, featuring Trinidad-born actor, choreographer and director Geoffrey Holder. More recently, there's Sebastian -- a red Jamaican crab who is one of the protagonists in Disney's 1989 animated movie The Little Mermaid. As the king's royal court composer, Sebastian has a passion for music, heavily influenced by calypso and reggae.
So where or how does the Volkswagen ad fit into this paradigm? I reached out to my colleague, Carole V. Bell, Assistant Professor in the Communication Studies Department at Northeastern University to get her reaction. (By way of disclosure, I am Trinidadian; Professor Bell is Jamaican). Although Professor Bell is not offended by the ad, she admits being continually annoyed by the reductive way the identity of "Jamaican" is constructed. The VW ad, she points out, is one-dimensional; the accent and attitude are a one-note gag.
Professor Bell wrote in an email exchange:
This VW ad is consistent with the Malibu Rum ad campaign and a previous Red Stripe campaign. When we're not being celebrated for our athletic prowess, which is great, Jamaicans are frequently reduced to happy go lucky simpletons or violent drug dealers in American culture. And I think that's trivializing. It's also creatively lazy, and I believe, ineffective. Marketers use it because the 'happy-go-lucky/no problem, mon' Jamaican has become a recognizable stock character. Jamaicans also use that image to sell products to tourists."
Arlene M. Roberts is the author of A Day in the Life of a Domestic Worker: Caribbean Immigrant Women and the Campaign for Fair Labor Standards -- with Related Policy Recommendations (2012). She is currently at work on her thrid policy report, also about Caribbean immigrants.