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Volkswagen, Coke and the Outrage Over Absolutely Everything

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There's an old saying that I used to live by but which I let fall by the wayside years ago because it kept getting me into trouble: It's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. I'm sure you understand how this philosophy works, particularly if you're married. Basically you just go ahead and do whatever the hell you want, even if you know it'll infuriate your partner, and pretend to be sorry later. Sure, you'll spend some time in the dog house, but you got to do whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place. Beats asking if it's okay ahead of time and risking him or her telling you no. Nobody wins there. Well, you don't win, and that's really all that counts. (See why I eventually abandoned this way of thinking?)

Asking for forgiveness instead of permission is the selfish asshole's credo. If you are indeed a selfish asshole, it should be tattooed across your upper back.

With that in mind, I can't help but wonder why so many of the various companies paying a bloody fortune for ad space at this year's Super Bowl have decided to prerelease their commercials on the internet in the run-up to the game. From a financial standpoint it doesn't seem to make much sense to have so many of these ads available well before the time they're actually slotted for, but a nasty little by-product of going with an early release is that any person or group on the lookout for something to be offended by can pick through your commercial and see if it meets their exacting standards -- and if it doesn't they can pitch a fit and demand that you change the ad before it airs in front of a hundred million presumably drunk people.

Certainly, controversy can create drama and drama can lead to publicity, which often leads to a nice financial payoff for those trying to move product. But this year, so far, two commercials have come under fire for their supposed "racism," and you can't help but wonder if the headache some are causing over them is worth the potential windfall given that Super Bowl ads are typically huge anyway.

A couple of days ago it broke that Volkswagen was being accused of racism over its upcoming ad which features a goofy white guy walking around his office trying to cheer up his coworkers, his happiness the result of driving a Volkswagen. The problem, apparently, is that the goofy white guy is speaking in Jamaican patois and throwing out terms like "irie," which is leading people like the normally reasonable Charles Blow of the New York Times to call the commercial "blackface with voices." Then today comes word that Coke is facing a backlash from some Arab-American groups over its Super Bowl ad, which features a race through the desert that includes an Ararbic guy in white desert-style robes and a keffiyeh who's pulling a stubborn camel. According to Imam Ali Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies, the spot is racist because it portrays Arabs as "backward and foolish camel jockeys" who have "no chance to win in the world."

I'm sure I'll be accused by some of engaging in a grotesque display of white privilege -- or at the very least an ignorance of the oppression dominant races inflict on supposedly subordinate ones -- but have we really become that quick to take offense, that willing to seek out things to be pissed about, and so utterly humorless in the name of attempting to make sure we offend no one? Make no mistake: a commercial for a global product -- one aimed at making money from as many people as possible -- isn't going to even inadvertently antagonize an entire race or ethnicity because doing so would be unbelievably stupid. And as for the demands of a select few who believe that their sensibilities should be catered to at all times, the companies behind these commercials simply can't plan for every single eventuality or worry about each individual taste.

The Volkswagen commercial is funny. Its tone is sweet and charming and I can't imagine how anyone could possibly be offended by it. If it's simply because it's a white guy doing a spot-on Jamaican accent and that's somehow not allowed -- even when there isn't a damn thing insulting about the depiction, and it's actually pointed out within the commercial that the guy doing the accent is from Minnesota and therefore looks ridiculous -- then it's not the makers of the ad who need to adjust their thinking. As for the Coke commercial, it's full of movie tropes, including a bus full of Vegas showgirls, a bunch of horseback-riding cowboys and even some Mad Max-ish leather-clad mutants on motorcycles -- all racing along with the Lawrence of Arabia character to see who can get to the Coke first. I happen to think it's a bit silly, but word has it there's more to the ad and its meme that will be developed both on TV and online -- and to have your takeaway from it be that it makes Arabs look like hapless dummies really seems like a hell of a reach.

The good news is that neither Volkswagen nor Coke plan to pull its ad. The stink over the Volkswagen spot has already diminished, with most people understanding and accepting that it's harmless. As for Coke, the concerns of those who've spoken out against the commercial are apparently being salved a little by the news that there's more to the thing than meets the eye. But there are those who still think Coke made a mistake with the commercial.

Chris Lehtonen, who's the president of a San Francisco-based marketing firm that specializes in creating ads geared toward LGBT and multicultural audiences says, "The problem with the ad is that it relies on stereotypical characters... While it may not be blatantly racist, the fact that it pits these groups against each other in the ad is insensitive. It is trying to sell their product at the expense of these groups. There are much better ways to tell the story."

Pitting a bunch of people against each other is insensitive -- in a commercial that airs in the middle of the Super Bowl. And the product is being sold at the expense of these groups? Yeah, I can only imagine the hell there'll be to pay when the post-apocalyptic community complains about how it's being stereotyped.

If either of these commercials offends you then you're absolutely entitled to voice that offense -- the same way others are entitled to tell you they think you need to pick your battles much, much better. Save your indignation for something that isn't completely inconsequential.

I can't help but wonder whether Volkswagen and Coke are now basking in all the attention these ads are getting or wishing they'd just run the damn things and then asked for forgiveness.