The Happy Dutch Sprinter

Television commercials can be pretty annoying. With the exception of the few that make you laugh. Quite often it’s the good commercials of which you forget what the company is actually trying to sell. However the annoying ones, that is a different story. Their tunes, actor 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 has 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 Dutch/Antillean athlete Churandy Martina. 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 to get ready. 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. 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 in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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 the Colony in 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’ (“Dutchie”) — 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 a “Dutchie”, 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 & gold teeth), he turned out to be very approachable. Our new teddy bear pet. Always happy. Tamed, and available for consumption. (You 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 Black Petes, 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 – “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? Where is Oxfam when you need a rebranding?

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8 thoughts on “The Happy Dutch Sprinter

  1. Dear Sir/Madam,

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  2. I’m coloured, of Surinam and Indonesian descent, and living in the Netherlands, and I cannot support this article in any way. I hate it when people try to turn everything into a racist remark, pun, commercial or whatever. Please … stop doing that.

    I think it’s great that Churandy Martina stole the hearts of the Dutch people. Trying to turn that into thinking that he’s being used in a racist commercial just for laughs is shameful if you’d ask me.

    It might surprise you, but coloured people in the Netherlands actually have the right to not cooperate in a commercial. We aren’t forced to be depicted in any way.

    So again, please stop doing that.

    • Don Joe, I think you might have missed the point of the ethnic stereotypical element that the author is pointing out.
      Since the ‘funny’-factor of the commercials lies enclosed in the caricatural sketch of ethnic markers of identity, one could very much be offended by the subtle (but nonetheless very present) racialized humor. But, if you’re not, ok. You clearly have a different frame of reference than the people who are offended by the bad taste in humor.You should’t ‘hate’ it when this is the case. That’s just wrong.

      Maybe you should give some thought also on your remark about the ‘rights’ of coloured people in the Netherlands to ‘cooperate’ in a commercial like this. Because this brings me to the realities of this day and age where people are being silenced when campagning against the Dutch Tradition of black pete. What about their rights to not cooperate?
      The reality is that in this case one succumbs to an overwhelming etnocentric dominance and thus has to conform to situations of having your kids celebrating this ‘racial sterotypical’ event at their schools. That doesn’t sound okay to me.

      • Where you write about “the Dutch Tradition of black pete” it should be “the Dutch tradition of Black Pete.” Or better still: Zwarte Piet for there is no such thing as a Black Pete anywhere in the Dutch countries. Zwarte Piet by the way is in voluntary service of Sinterklaas, but, o well…

  3. So in comedy it’s ok to stereotype someone unless he’s not white, than it’s racist.
    This makes things very clear to me. From now on let’s only make jokes about white people.
    Enough material there, i would say.

  4. I think the point is in the question Serginho uses to end his article with: would it just be possible to have “normal” black people in a commercial or any other cultural manifestation as, you know, people? Not as a caricature, or as a symbol of whatever they are supposed to be a symbol of. I would certainly get mightily tired of all that.

    It’s the same kind of roadblock you’re up against when reporting on Africa. Can we just report on Nairobi, Conakry, Dakar (where I live), Harare as we would on Berlin, London, Paris or Zurich? You know, according to the same journalistic principles and methods – and NOT treat it as a kind of an exotic place where only strange/outrageous/unusual things happen? Would make for an improvement. There really is a lot more going on in Guinea Bissau than just cocaine. There is a lot more to the DRC than war atrocities. Not every Nigerian sits behind a computer trying to extort money. That kind of thing. The fact that this needs to be pointed out is, kind of…tiring, really.

  5. I sympathise with the author, though he is stretching it in this case. There have been commercials on Dutch tv featuring a Ghanaian man (I believe it was for a camera) and I’ve seen some starring a Senegalese lady (that was for yoghurt); and they weren’t stereotyped. So perhaps it’s not the color but rather an inferiority/superiority complex at play between the Dutch and Surinamese/Antilleans?

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