I wrote this piece a couple weeks ago, inspired by a new ad from Puma that is all over the streets of Kingston. The text is also below, as I fear this link may change as they update it on a weekly basis. And yes, they spelled my name wrong.
The power of a good ad flows from its ability to strike at the gut and extract an emotional response. Its power also rests in simplicity; it must leave space upon which one can lay one’s own narrative. Puma’s latest ad now blanketing the streets of Kingston is an example.
With the tagline ‘And then Jamaica conquered England’ acting as the foundation and a flag-clad Usain Bolt staring to the future, the ad has created a buzz on social media.
The reasons for the ad’s success are numerous. It is the contrast of a pensive and solitary young man set against the way we usually see him: gallivanting, posing, dominating. Visually, its stark white background contrasts with what usually surrounds Bolt: a stadium of roaring fans, the media’s flashing bulbs, and the red rubber of the track.
Because to be sure, the image of an exuberant, supremely confident Bolt celebrating his Olympic record-breaking feats with his signature lightning pose is now iconic. The 26-year-old Bolt is the epitome of success: a finely honed human being at his absolute peak, giving a performance that is the result of unparalleled talent, unmatched hard work and unsurpassed dedication.
The use of Bolt’s image, captured from behind, is also powerful, as it positions consumers as observers: we are watching a young man ponder his future. Where can he go from here? What more can he achieve?
For Jamaicans, he need not achieve anything else. As far as citizens are concerned, he is a hero on par with Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff. Jamaicans are eagerly awaiting his return, so much so that there is a cry for a national holiday to celebrate his achievements, as well as those of his teammates, who, combined, won 12 Olympic medals.
The Jamaican athletics team’s performance reinforced in this nation a confidence already lodged in its psyche, but that has been challenged by social problems like unemployment, crime and financial difficulties.
More than celebration
However, Puma’s ad strikes deeper than an ecstatic celebration of sporting victory and the claim of the title of the fastest man in the world.
With its reference to the complicated and heart-wrenching relationship between these nations, Puma has evoked the history of colonisation.
Look, the ad whispers, you conquered our land, now we conquer your culture, your sports and a title of global excellence. And we did it in a civilised, modern fashion using the universal language of sport and culture.
Perhaps the Puma executives had in mind a poem from Louise Bennett Coverley, another beloved Jamaican who celebrated the nation’s culture and embraced the use of Patois. Here’s an excerpt from a Bennett poem.
An week by week dem shippin off
Dem countryman like fire,
Fe immigrate an populate
De seat a de Empire.
Oonoo see how life is funny,
Oonoo see de tunabout?
The poem paints the picture of the challenges and opportunities faced by Jamaican immigrants as they make a new life in the UK. This story is ongoing, as the ad references: “And then Jamaica conquered England.” This statement begs a precedent sentence, with the intuitive phrase being “England conquered Jamaica.”
Thus, another layer of brilliance to Puma’s ad: the effects of colonialism continue to impact everything from culture to international relations to sports. But with Bolt’s win, Jamaica has written a new chapter to the story.