‘Aren’t we proud of our language?’: Commodification and the Nissan Bonavista TV Commercial

Ruth King, Jennifer Wicks

York University, Canada, OISE, University of Toronto, Canada

WS128: Media Representations of Minority Language Varieties

In the fall of 2006, a commercial for a new SUV named the Nissan Bonavista after a town on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, Canada’s most easterly province, was aired on all the major Canadian TV networks. In the commercial, the speech of an actor portraying a local car salesperson who extols the SUV’s virtues is subtitled. While subtitling regional varieties is not unique to this context nor uncontroversial more generally, this instance goes a step further in that the speaker’s actual words are rephrased in more mainstream English. For example, the traditional greeting “How’s she gettin’ on, me son?” is rendered “Hi.”. The commercial was immediately subject to intense debate. Complaints were made to Nissan, to the networks and to their regional affiliates in Newfoundland. Negative appraisals also appeared in local and national newspapers and in numerous online forums. On the other hand, many other contributions to the debate regarded the commercial in a favourable light, arguing for pride in one’s heritage and the ability to take a joke.

Here we analyse the original commercial, the media parodies it engendered, and the electronic and print media debate. We contextualize the issues in terms of Newfoundland’s distinctive culture and language (Clarke 2004 a&b), long the object of mainland Canadian ridicule (Pringle 1985; McKinnie & Dailey-O’Cain 2002). We also consider the province’s recent economic history, including the collapse of traditional industry, a pattern of out-migration related to that collapse, and a turn to (inter)national tourism.

We begin with the original commercial and the actor’s mix of Newfoundland and non-Newfoundland vernacular features. We then turn to video and audio parodies which take up the fact that the actor is not a Newfoundlander and present a view of stereotyping as indicative of lack of respect. Our third source of data is media discussion in online forums, including those provided by personal blogs, Youtube and the CBC. Here are echoed many of the arguments discussed in King & Clarke (2002) with reference to the debate surrounding the contested group label “Newfie” (viewed variously as a source of pride, an ethnic slur, or something in between). These attitudes were found to correlate with attitudes towards the commodification of Newfoundland culture, and this is also the case here. However, in the new data (collected almost a decade later), a pro-globalization discourse (e.g. the stance that any transmission of information about Newfoundland is good for tourism) appears more prevalent. Further, an insider-outsider effect (e.g. for some, “Newfie” may be used among insiders as a term of solidarity, but not by outsiders) is recast in terms of rights, including the right to perform the vernacular (even some fans of the commercial express dismay at the choice of a non-local actor) and the right to judge (online posters typically begin with their biographic history relative to Newfoundland (e.g. I/my wife/my co-worker is a Newfoundlander), not unlike discursive strategies in online discussion of Pittsburghese reported by Johnson & Baumgardt (2004).

Session: Workshop (part 1)
Media Representations of Minority Language Varieties
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 11:00-12:30
room: 17