Flags and Hurricane sandy 2012 002Does anybody but me think the excessive excitement we created over the VW ad, which I wrote about here,  led to the Saturn commercial featuring the burning of a Jamaican flag which is now being reviled? After all, the VW ad to date has received over 13 million views on Youtube, and was a talking point in the United States and Jamaica.

To digress a bit, have we gone a little, just a tad, overboard though? I mean the actor is now a VIP?  The red carpet is being rolled out, and it’s got him a trip to Jamaica and more work – so this white actor with the fake Jamaican accent is going to be promoting Jamaica now. Maybe we are trying too hard. Just a thought.

Anyway, is it any wonder that the Saturn people thought, “Let’s jump on board the Jamaica train. But we have to up the shock value. What will get people talking again? I got it! Let’s burn their flag!” Maybe to go from getting people talking, to burning our flag wasn’t a leap that most people would have made. But here we are again…ironically, discussing another German ad featuring Jamaica.

According to Wikipedia – sorry, couldn’t find another reference right now – it is illegal in Germany to burn the German flag. In relation to flags of foreign countries:

“…it is illegal to damage or revile them, if they are shown publicly by tradition, event or routinely by representatives of the foreign entity (§104 StGB –{ Criminal Code}). On the other hand it is not illegal to desecrate such flags that serve no official purpose (especially including any (that) the one willing to desecrate them brings by himself for that purpose).”

That is, it would be illegal to burn the flag at the Jamaican embassy, for example, but it would not be illegal to burn a random Jamaican flag – as in the coffee shop ad.

Should they have burned the Jamaican flag? Well, what were they aiming for? Controversy? Well, they’ve got that. Attention? They have ours. As of today, they have received nearly half a million views on Youtube. A far cry from the VW ad but we’ll see if that number climbs dramatically in the next week.

Flag burning is usually seen as an act of political protest, against a government’s policies.

Just this month alone, a political activist in Hong Kong was sentenced to nine months in jail for burning the flags of China and Hong Kong to protest government policies and positions. In Belgrade, criminal proceedings are being taken against deputy leader of the Serb radical party for allegedly “setting flags of the United States, the EU and NATO on fire” to protest against the Hague Tribunal’s decision to acquit someone accused of war crimes against Serbs.

Last September, thousands of people in Lahore participated in protests where the American flag was burnt to protest against a movie trailer said to insult Islam (in an ironic twist, one protestor died from inhaling the fumes from the burning flag, according to reports.)

But in the United States, that bastion of patriotic red, white and blueness – the flag can legally be burned, as it was in protests during the Vietnam

United States flag being burnt in protest, in ...
United States flag being burnt in protest, in New Hampshire on the eve of the 2008 election. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

War. That’s not to say everybody is happy with the state of the law. Congress has tried to pass laws banning desecration of the flag but these have been struck down by the court. The Supreme Court in 1989 in the case of Texas v Johnson ruled that flag burning is an expression of free speech protected by the constitution.

So the legal treatment of flag burning varies from country to country. But everywhere, it is recognised that  flags are usually burned to protest important, political issues in a dramatic (and offensive) statement of contempt. It is the very fact that the act is one which most people find deeply offensive that makes it such an effective form of protest.

You can’t convince me that this was a misguided attempt to praise Jamaica. Not with the political context and significance world-wide of flag burning. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Be offended. Don’t be offended. That is up to you. But don’t be fooled by assertions that the intention was good and it is actually a compliment to Jamaica. This was a cynical attempt to use a controversial device to get attention, while cloaking it in pseudo-respect for the Jamaican flag and people.

That the makers of the Saturn ad understood the political issues is clear from the storyline of the ad. I assume they thought the attention to the commercial would override the very real risk of offence it would cause. The motive was clearly to get attention. And we are certainly giving it to them.