The Happy Dutch Sprinter

Why does black characters in Dutch TV commercial plays some exaggerated version of someone from the colonies? Can "normal" black people not sell a product? 

Braden Collum, via Unsplash.

Television commercials can be pretty annoying. With the exception of the few that make you laugh. The good commercials are the ones where you forget what the company is actually trying to sell you. However, as the annoying ads, that is a different story. Their soundtracks, actors and catch phrases crawl into your head, triggering a bodily sensation every time they’re on TV, usually every thirty minutes. As soon as you hear the very first notes of the jingle or the actors’ voices you jump up like a 100-meter sprint athlete, rushing to the remote to switch the channel. Recently a TV commercial in the Netherlands for an oven dish by sauce manufacturer Remia, triggered exactly this reaction; added with a hit of shame and a teaspoon of sadness.

The commercial simply entitled ‘Remia saus voor ovenschotel’ (“Remia sauce for oven dishes”) features the Dutch/Antillean athlete Churandy Martina. His claims to fame is that he is the reigning European men’s 200 meter sprint champion and finished 5th overall in the 100m at the 2012 Olympics in London.  In the one-minute commercial we first see Martina preparing Remia’s new instant dish. With each ingredient he adds to the dish, Martina says: “Ik ben blij” (“I’m happy”, in Dutch). We’ll get to why he says that in a bit. Here’s the commercial.

After putting the dish in the oven he reads the back of the package and learns that it only takes five minutes before it is ready to serve the dish. Although this is pretty quick (given it’s an instant meal), Martina swears that it can be done even faster. The commercial then cuts to a running track where we see five athletes ready for a 4 x 100 relay race.  (Martina is also a member of the Dutch team which won the 4 x 100 relay race at the 2012 European championships.) As soon as the starting shot sounds, the men race off. The comical element is that the athletes have the instant dish in their hands while running. With each handover the athlete adds an ingredient to the dish (like Martina did in the previous scene) and passes it to a team mate until we get to Martina himself who doesn’t only put the dish in the oven, but also wins the race in 39.11 seconds – a ‘world record’ – and is thus faster than Remia claims it takes to prepare the dish.

The play on Martina’s speed as the national and European champion (with the relay team) and the speed at which the product is prepared, make for a nice pun. It gets people laughing, sharing it on social media and of course reinforces the brand name.

However, this commercial also reinforces the stereotypical images of minorities in the Netherlands. In this case black people. And to be more specific, people of Dutch Caribbean decent, where Martina’s roots lie and whose socio-economic position in the Netherlands can be described as (at the least) problematic; second class citizens at best.

The Dutch Caribbean consists of six islands in the Caribbean that are part of the Dutch Kingdom: three of them are ‘special municipalities’ while the three other ones are ‘constituent countries’ within the Kingdom — quite the re-branding of the concept of colonialism for the 21st century.

Now, the Dutch have a habit of cherry picking when it comes to these islands. White sandy beaches are labeled ‘Holland in the tropics’, while high unemployment rates are the result of mismanagement by the ‘corrupt’ local government; drug runners are Antillean youth, while an Olympic athlete running next to Usain Bolt is suddenly a ‘Hollander’ (“Dutchman”) — even if the criminal and the athlete share the same Dutch passport.

Since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in late 2010 (the Caribbean country the Dutch Antilles were formally known as), Martina decided to run for the Netherlands since the ‘new’ countries for the time being didn’t have an Athletics Federation. Martina has been a pretty successful athlete for over a decade, but his real rise to fame in the Netherlands came at the 2012 London Olympics.

Martina not only became “Dutch”, he also became that funny black guy who speaks broken Dutch with a very heavy accent. Asked about his performance during the Olympics, Martina’s only response to the press would be “Ik ben blij” (“I am happy”), followed by a big smile into the camera including one gold-capped teeth, like in the Remia commercial.

And now, months since the closing ceremony of the Olympics, the Dutch public can once again laugh not just at Martina, but at the Antillean people at large, as he has almost become the personification of the entire group.

The government monitors this group of people closely. For example by a special task force responsible of 22 towns and cities that are labeled ‘Antillean municipalities’ within the larger Association of Netherlands Municipalities that occasionally come together to discuss how to fight problems caused by young ‘lower class’ Antilleans. Like in the ‘Antillean municipality’ of Den Helder where in 2010 about 300 Antilleans were screened intensely. The reason why in the first these people showed up on the radar was because they belonged to the Antillean community, living in a city known for a ‘large’ concentration of Antilleans: 2.4% of the total city population.

And this is exactly the reason why, next to his performance at the Olympics and his ‘funny’ language, Martina became so popular in the Netherlands. Because, despite his stereotypical appearance of an Antillean criminal (tattoos and gold teeth), he turned out to be very approachable. Our new teddy bear pet. Always happy. Tamed, and available for consumption. You may laugh, but not so long ago black TV-presenter John Williams was featured in a commercial for chocolate mousse: while eating chocolate mousse with her white husband, the white woman in the commercial secretly fantasizes about something else that’s black and sweet. And this being the country of Zwarte Piet, the “lovable” blackface figure, nobody blinks at these two TV-show hosts’ blackface impersonation of Martina.

One could argue that commercials always play on stereotypes and exaggerate peoples’ behavior. Indeed, and for this reason the Martina commercial works. But at the same Olympics last year, the world was also introduced to another Dutch athlete in the Aquatics Center: swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjodjo returned home with three medals. Her name indeed suggests (for those who know Dutch a bit) as being of foreign origin. She is the daughter of a Surinamese father and Dutch mother. To be precise, a mother from Groningen, a province in the north of the country. Now, everything in the Netherlands that is not “West” basically constitutes as “rural” — at least to those of the largely urbanized west. And “rural” also means “real Dutch”. So when Kromowidjodjo was featured in a short documentary (skip to minute 12:25), she was framed as the typical Dutch girl, riding her bike trough the typically Dutch landscape. And that ‘weird’ name? Oh, that’s taken for granted.

Ranomi Kromowidjodjo is that girl from a province of hard working farmers and is thus an athlete who has trained hard to get where she is now, while Martina is that funny Antillean with a funny accent who barely speaks Dutch. The reason why Martina runs that fast can’t possibly have anything to do with him training as hard as Kromowidjodjo. Black people are fast by nature.

The sad thing though is that the Martina commercial is yet another commercial that plays on the stereotypical image of black people living in the Netherlands (either from Caribbean or Surinamese decent). I already mentioned the one with John Williams. But we also had the ‘hysterical black woman’ who loses her mobile phone. (You might recognize her as being the main actress in the movie Alleen Maar Nette Mensen about which we blogged before.) Then we have ‘big mama’ whose swearing in the Surinamese language (“Saka Saka boy” or basically “bastard”) makes us want to cancel our mobile phone subscription. And since a few weeks we can also enjoy the ‘funny’, out of place Surinamese man in the Alps dressed in German lederhosen, including Surinamese accent.

Can “normal” black people not sell a product?

Further Reading