By now, you’ve probably seen Toyota’s ‘Swagger Wagon’ video, the newest blaxploitation ad that the internet is scratching its head about.
It’s a little strange to think that just last year, the internet was fawning over the ‘Just Checking’ Cheerios commercial, which featured an interracial couple and freaked out internet racists everywhere.
Believe it or not, that ad was produced by Saatchi & Saatchi, the same company that made the ‘Swagger Wagon’ video.
But, unlike the New York branch of Saatchi, which went viral off of pushing boundaries and making America think about race, the LA branch seems to be banking on making fun of black people for its success.
Even more strange, though, is the fact that this is actually the second ‘Swagger Wagon’ video. There was another one in 2010 that apparently went viral, with over 12 million plays on Youtube. A bunch of quirky white families even made their own homage videos, with varying levels of awfulness, the original Swagger Dad even went on a tour, and even a church did a parody. But there wasn’t much backlash back then.
So why are we all up in arms about this one? Where were the angry comments four years ago?
Part of that might be that while the 2010 version was pretty fanciful, this 2014 one is a little too real to black people. We could laugh that one off, but this one is just too close to home.
For example, the track on the 2010 one was produced by Black Iris Music, a third-rate production outfit that specializes in making ripoff versions of popular songs for companies like Discover to use in their commercials. The beat is boring, badly produced, and nobody would mistake it for an actual rap song.
Compare that to the 2014 version. I’m not sure who did the actual beat – it might still be Black Iris, but it’s pretty good. It’s not a club killer by any stretch, but it’s good enough for, say, a Chief Keef weed-carrier to use as a filler cut for a mixtape. And, of course, it features a well-fed Busta Rhymes, who phones in a verse that actually isn’t too bad considering his recent output.
Then, we’ve got the quality of the video itself. The 2014 version makes the 2010 version look like a high school French video project. This new one features complicated car choreography, expensive sets, fancy camera work, and, well, an actual rapper.
But, why Busta Rhymes?
Well, it’s because the target audience is middle aged white people, and it’s important that they understand what’s going on.
That’s why there’s nothing new in the video. Almost everything in the video is at least twenty years late. The shiny suits look like they’re straight out of a Ma$e video, the slang is all recognizable to anyone under 50, and Busta has been popular since the mid 90s.
Probably the newest element in the video is the grand finale in which a bunch of extras, including a black dude that cannot possibly have been paid enough for this embarrassment, perform an obvious rip-off of Soulja Boy’s 2007 ‘Superman’ dance. This is clearly included because it a) takes no dancing talent to perform and b) everybody remembers it because it freaked out middle America with those rumors about the bedsheets.
If they were aiming for black people, they might have gone for 2 Chainz or Lil Wayne or hell, Drake. But old white people don’t know who those guys are. Busta might not be the best candidate for middle America rapper recognition (that would be Snoop Dogg), but he’s not a bad choice. (Actually, I’m willing to bet that they pitched Snoop Dogg for this one, but maybe they couldn’t afford him and had to settle).
By the way, when asked about his performance in the Swagger Wagon video, Busta gave the most cryptic response he’s given since his studio exit in Beyond Beats and Rhymes:
Swagger Wagon is funny because it’s a little scary.
The ‘funny’ element of this video actually has a lot in common with the #Daquan meme that swept the internet for a brief moment last month. ‘Daquan’ played on the fears of white society being ‘infected’ by black culture, and Swagger Wagon spot does the same thing: the Youtube description invites us to ‘see the effect [the Swagger Wagon has] had on the Neubert family’.
So, apparently the reason Papa Neubert is cursing, the kids are being disobedient, and the whole family is speaking slang and throwing makeshift gang signs is because black culture has been infecting them.
But, it’s all in fun, and never gets too heavy. That’s why we only get a momentary glimpse of Mama Neubert being seduced by Busta Rhymes while a jealous Papa Neubert looks on impotently. After all, the ultimate white male fear is having ‘his’ woman taken by a sexually superior black man. But that’s way too real, and would upset the target audience, so that scene only lasts a few seconds.
Objectively, this is a great commercial. It tantalizes white viewers by showing them how fun black culture can be, gives them a bunch of easily recognizable symbols and characters, and even flirts with sexual danger for a moment. In other words, it’s got all the right elements for a viral video.
Unfortunately for Toyota, black people also know how to use the internet.
This brings us to the question, then: is there a better way to exploit minorities?
In a word, yes. Other companies have worked the ‘influence of black culture’ angle before, to much better effect.
For example, there’s the ‘Black Experience’ series that Nissan ran in 2007. It featured a bunch of Japanese people with dreads and perms hanging out in a Tokyo barbershop, and ran in magazines like Vibe during Black History Month. The ad featured the copy ‘The Black Experience is Everywhere’, and the idea was a bit like Toyota’s 2010 attempt, with one key difference: black culture was a good thing, a positive influence.
The ad weirded me out a bit, but I know a lot of middle-aged black people were very happy about it. I remember a friend’s mom showing me the ad in a magazine and saying that people all over the world respected black people, so we should be proud of our culture. I don’t know if she ended up buying a Nissan or not, but the ad certainly left her with a good impression of the company.
But Saatchi, and whatever genius at Toyota that greenlighted this project, are clearly not interested in black people’s money. Which is sort of a shame, considering that Toyota currently has the second highest industry share among black consumers (second, appropriately enough, to Nissan). Toyota also has the #1 spot among Latino and Asian customers.
So, it’s too bad. Toyota might just have shot themselves in the foot with this one. I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers were a bit different next year.