Volkswagen Super Bowl ad stirs controversy online

Tuesday - 1/29/2013, 4:42pm EST

By MAE ANDERSON
AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - The first pregame Super Bowl ad controversy of the year has arrived.

A Volkswagen Super Bowl ad that hit the Web on Monday and depicts a white office worker showing his happiness with a Jamaican accent is stirring up online controversy.

The ad shows a worker from Minnesota trying to cheer up co-workers in an accent often associated with black Jamaicans, because he has been made so happy by his Volkswagen. Pundits on NBC's "Today Show" a Wall Street Journal blog and elsewhere have questioned whether the ad is offensive.

It's a rare case of negative buzz for Volkswagen, which has had hit ads released before the Super Bowl for two years straight.

In 2010, the company released "The Force," a Passat ad that showed a cute little kid in a Darth Vader costume trying to use the Force from "Star Wars" on uncooperative household objects. The ad was a hit and came in second in USA Today's "Ad Meter," which measures audience reaction to the ads. It has been seen 56 million times on Youtube.com.

In 2011, a pregame teaser called "The Imperial March," which showed dogs barking music from the "Star Wars" score, was also popular.

But despite the media outcry, most comments surrounding the ad appeared to be positive.

On Youtube.com, many left comments on the spot saying they did not find the ad culturally insensitive. But some said they found the characterization of Jamaicans as "happy-go-lucky" to be stereotypical.

Robert Kolt, advertising instructor at Michigan State University, said he found the ad cute rather than offensive.

"I've seen ads that may be insensitive in the past and I don't think that's true with this one," he said. "It's a joke, and I think most people will think it's funny."

A bigger problem, he said, is that it doesn't really make people remember Volkswagen as a brand.

"I'm not sure it brands the product well enough during the spot," he said.

Volkswagen, for its part, stood by the ad and says it has no plans to pull it.

"The protagonist in the commercial is intentionally meant to portray an upbeat perspective and intelligence as he influences his coworkers to `Get Happy,'" said Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer for Volkswagen of America, in an e-mail response to an AP query "His accent is intended to convey a relaxed, cheerful demeanor while encouraging a positive attitude as the antidote to a tough Monday."

Super Bowl ads are no stranger to controversy _ usually when an intended joke falls flat.

In 2009, Groupon.com made its Super Bowl debut with tongue-in-cheek fake public service announcements that showed celebrities who seemingly were discussing social issues, but instead were really talking about Groupon deals.

Some viewers and human rights groups thought the ads mocked serious social issues.

Last year, Skechers raised eyebrows of greyhound rights activists by shooting its ad at a racetrack in Arizona that the group claimed mistreats greyhounds.

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On the Web: http://www.youtube.com/watch?featureplayer_embedded&v9H0xPWAtaa8


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