MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, last night's Super Bowl featured three stunners, a 35-minute blackout, Beyonce - if you don't mind my saying so - and a thrilling comeback that came up short. Oh, yeah, the score. The Ravens beat the 49ers 34 to 31. But for some fans - and I think it's OK to admit this - the high points of the game include the commercials, which cost about $4 million for a 30-second spot. So let's talk about them with Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.
Eric, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
ERIC DEGGANS: Michel, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the commercial that I think, even before the game, was getting a lot of buzz, not just the good kind. It was a spot from Volkswagen and it features a white office worker who speaks with a Jamaican accent. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, Dave, you're from Minnesota. Right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, I. The land of 10,000 lakes, the Gopher State.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: So, in conclusion, things are pretty dismal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know what this room needs? A smile. Who want to come with I?
MARTIN: So, Eric, you were a fan and I want to hear why. Just to explain to people the premise of it in case they didn't see it, which is that the Volkswagen makes you so happy - I guess it's what? That the Volkswagen makes you so happy that you speak with a Jamaican accent. Is that it? Does that sound right?
DEGGANS: Yeah. I was not a fan of this commercial.
MARTIN: You were not a fan of this? OK.
DEGGANS: Yeah. I want to be clear about that.
MARTIN: Tell me. OK. I want to hear it.
DEGGANS: I was a little troubled by it, actually, because - and I got a lot of pushback from readers of my blog and people who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, particularly when I brought this up when it aired during the Super Bowl last night.
But what it comes down - to me - is the humor in the ad comes from a white guy who sounds like he's talking in a way that we mostly imagine black Jamaicans talking. There are white Jamaicans who sound like that, but I think, you know, in our cultural consciousness, we don't often think about white people sounding like that. We picture black guys with dreads who play in reggae bands or something.
And it just seemed - it felt odd. It felt weird. It wasn't quite - I wouldn't use the word, racist. I wouldn't go that far. I would just say that it made me uncomfortable and...
MARTIN: Do you know why it made you uncomfortable?
DEGGANS: Because, like I said, the humor in the ad comes from a white guy adopting a black accent.
MARTIN: Well, can I...
DEGGANS: And we've seen other - I mean, because the portrayal is positive, because he's portraying somebody who's upbeat and fun and bringing light to a dismal situation, people are cool with it. But if he was doing that and he was doing something negative, then people would have a hard time with it. But I'm wondering if the act itself is something we should be concerned about.
MARTIN: Well, I'm told that the Jamaican tourism office does like the ad, but what I think - if you don't mind my trying my hand at it - is I think that what's troubling about it is the implication that all Jamaicans are happy and...
DEGGANS: Yeah, yeah. Well...
MARTIN: ...it's almost like it kind of plays into this. Forgive me, folks. The happy darky myth, the sort of stereotype that just - you're happy just all the time and - well, why would you be? And no human being is happy - no group of people is happy all the time and it's also appropriated because Volkswagen is not a Jamaican company. So you kind of feel like...
MARTIN: So I don't know. But it's interesting because we...
DEGGANS: Well, that's part of - that's the other half of what troubles me about it is it's connected to a stereotype. It's a white guy who is evoking a black stereotype by talking like a black person. And that is what troubled me about it, but I sort of agree with comic W. Kamau Bell, who sort of said, you know, on the list of racist stuff, it's like maybe number 3,000.
DEGGANS: You know, it's way down on the list, but it is something that troubled me and what troubled me more about it is that it was hard to talk about the nuances of the situation without people getting so upset, as if you can't say, this ad troubles me, without calling Volkswagen, like, an incredibly bigoted company, which is...
MARTIN: Oh, I don't think you did that. I...
DEGGANS: ...which nobody was saying.
MARTIN: I want to turn to the other commercial that you wanted to flag for us. This is one of the other ones that people are talking about. It's the Dodge Ram truck commercial and it features a monologue from the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)
PAUL HARVEY: God said, I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board. So, God made a farmer.
MARTIN: What do you think about this ad resonated with people?
DEGGANS: I think it was the connection to sort of traditional values and the fact that it was so simple. We were bombarded by all these ads that had tons of CGI and all kinds of babies flying through space and all kinds of craziness, but the ad that was one of the most effective was just a really effective radio communicator telling this story just laden with traditional values that people, I think, still kind of yearn for in this time and so - and, you know, not a lot of people, I think, knew who Paul Harvey was online. You know, a lot of younger people didn't know who he was. They just knew that they were transfixed by this voice.
MARTIN: And we only have a minute left, so Eric...
MARTIN: So what's the - is there one overarching theme this year or one takeaway from what we saw this year?
DEGGANS: You know, it's the message that always comes through Super Bowl ads, which is that creativity and having your finger on the pulse of society always trumps the gimmicks. So, you know, the viva young ad that Taco Bell did with old folks going out and partying the way that young people do - that really touched people in a way that a lot of these much more highly produced ads really didn't do.
MARTIN: Did it make you want to go get a Taco Bell?
DEGGANS: You know, I wonder if I would live to be that age if I ate Taco Bell, but it was an effective ad and it made me think well of the brand, even though I wouldn't necessarily eat there.
MARTIN: OK. Well, thank you. Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, with us once again from their newsroom.
Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
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MARTIN: Coming up, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo has become a legend in Africa, both for her music and her human rights work.
ANGELIQUE KIDJO: I cannot be happy if I know there are children that goes to bed everyday without a shelter, free meal a day, access to good education and good health.
MARTIN: I sit down with UNICEF goodwill ambassador and one of Africa's greatest living divas, Angelique Kidjo. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: In the past, having bad credit would make it hard to get a credit card or a mortgage, but now could it also keep you from getting a date? Apparently, when some singles ask you for your digits these days, they don't just mean your phone number. We'll talk about this latest front in the dating wars next time on TELL ME MORE.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.