Peter York On Ads: Island idyll unchanged by ravages of crime

Are you just that bit West Indian? We're not all as far gone as Ali G but, for the joke to have worked when Sacha Baron Cohen first proposed it nearly eight years ago, it had to have had wide resonance. It assumed most people under 30 knew a full-on "wigga" when they saw one, and that quite a lot had rubbed off - music, language, clothes - into the mainstream. Baron Cohen, an upper-middly Jewish public-schoolboy who did history at Cambridge, was reflecting 60 years and more of fashionable interest in the West Indies and West Indians.

Ian Fleming and Noel Coward were pioneer, post-war, smart settlers in Jamaica. Colin Tennant was on Mustique a little later, bringing the Princess Margaret set with him. Mick Jagger, who by the late 1960s was already playing it both ways socially, did Mustique for the louche life and Jamaica for the dreadlocked musical co-operations, the Peter Tosh sessions. Chris Blackwell, like Tennant, another Victorian plutocrat's grandson, set the pattern in the 1970s with Island Records. His Kingston-meets-Notting-Hill label consolidated a whole strand of young upper-class taste around reggae, dope, Afghan artefacts and a new vocabulary rendered in cod Jamaican accents - batty boy and rass clot were favourites as I remember it. All a bit like Mayfair Cockney.

Over the 1970s, and particularly during punk, fashionable attention shifted to the Jamaican immigrants' children living here. The Carnival, the riots, the life. Dreadlocks in Ladbroke Grove instead of Kingston. We were all getting that bit West Indian, and overwhelmingly that meant Jamaican.

Jamaica became a major destination in the 1980s as New Money went increasingly long-haul. And three generations of Jamaicans had become our most familiar assimilated New Brits. Lenny Henry, the Brummie Everyman with the funny God-fearing disciplinarian mum, was typical. In the 1980s, assimilated Jamaicans became part of most ordinary urban landscapes. There were black sitcoms set in Peckham barber shops and in relatively genteel housing estates. And things seemed to be getting along here and there. Setbacks certainly, but appearing to inch forward as Jamaican became another flavour in the British melting pot (and coffee-coloured people by the score, of course, because Brits and Jamaicans stirring together made the largest population of mixed-race children in Europe).

There's a whole sub-set of advertising featuring jolly Jamaicans, here and back there. Lilt, with "it's totally tropical taste", starred old West Indian dancing ladies and helped set the mould. Creatives who had spent impressionable years in Brixton or Ladbroke Grove were always looking for a chance to show off their mastery of roots.

And then there's Jamaica itself, the Tourist Board's advertising for the Island Paradise, a staple of the spring advertising schedules since God was a boy. The current commercial is exactly like every Jamaica ad I've ever seen. It's got the lot, saturated hyper-colour, blue sea and bright greenery, surfing kids with dreadlocks and, of course, attractive women of colour. Plus "One Love" as the music track - "Let's get together and feel alright". But do we?

While this commercial could have been put together any time in the last 25 years, I suspect the automatic associations with Jamaica have changed. They've got scarier. We know more, we've read more, we've seen more films and documentaries giving the impression that Jamaica's slipping backwards, becoming gang-ruled, unsafe, unless you stay in your holiday compound. Yardies, drug mules, the police's Operation Trident for black-on-black crime, all reflect back on Jamaica, on what marketing people call the national brand. All of it raising worries that won't go away with a bit of blow. Once there's an impression, rightly or wrongly, that a destination is difficult, then tourism falls away. Jamaica's hardly Iraq but I suspect anyone under 40 who actually wanted to see local life would think twice.

The story isn't new. The Harder They Come was released 34 years ago. But Jamaica's image has moved from picturesque to turbo - violent and international, from grass to industrial drug-dealing. The issue isn't race, it's 21st-century class and geography, miles away from the accounts supervisor in Basildon or the BT engineer. It's a cleft stick for the Tourist Board and its agency. They can't square up to it in the advertising - that's there to drum up bookings - but they'll know perfectly well that, precisely because we're that much more West Indian, it's there in their younger target markets' collective head.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent