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.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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