A VRBO commercial that uses I'se the B'y as its soundtrack has images of undesirable rental accommodations. (VRBO/YouTube)
A commercial for the vacation rental site VRBO has both the province's tourism industry and government calling for its removal.
The video ad uses the traditional folk song, I'se the B'y, as its soundtrack, along with images of a small trailer, an old barn with chickens in it, and a tent with a pig on an air mattress, indicating accommodations that would be clearly undesirable.
The implication is that, if a traveller books with other rental sites instead of VRBO, they can't be confident about what they'll find when they arrive.
Deborah Bourden, chair of the province's tourism association, Hospitality N.L., said she couldn't believe what she was watching when she first viewed the VRBO commercial, and she said the use of a song that is synonymous with this province is unfortunate and disappointing.
"Given the importance of this song to us, I think we do have the right to ask them to remove it or change it," said Bourden, who said Hospitality N.L. will be in touch with VRBO.
The province's Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation also issued a statement on Monday on behalf of Minister Steve Crocker, saying he has contacted VRBO and asked for the video to be removed from YouTube and television rotation.
"We take strong exception to VRBO using the song in this derogatory manner," said the statement attributed to the tourism minister.
The VRBO commercial's message is that booking with VRBO will help you avoid accommodations like the ones in the video. (YouTube/VRBO)
Tourism officials aren't the only ones noticing the VRBO commercial, which first received airplay around the time of the Grammy Awards broadcast on Feb. 4.
Kirk Saunders, who lives in Portugal Cove-St. Philips, saw it that night and he was among the first to publicly express his disgust about the commercial, in a Facebook post long before most people appear to have even heard of the video.
"It was upsetting, offensive, certainly disrespectful, rude, and overall ignorant. I mean, it's I'se the B'y. It's part of our Newfoundland and Labrador history," said Saunders, in an interview with CBC News.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that the commercial would do any real damage to the province's reputation as a tourist destination.
Ruby Locke is originally from St. John's but now lives in Iowa, and she said she doesn't even think most people would connect the commercial or song to this province — if they can even find Newfoundland on a map.
"I actually love the VRBO commercial. It reminded me of home," she said. "I don't think people understood it who are not from Newfoundland. They wouldn't get the connection."
Sandra Mills, who works in theatre and describes herself as a pop culture enthusiast, weighed in on social media to say her initial reaction was that it was great to hear a Newfoundland song used in an international commercial.
Mills said she is very critical of how marginalized communities are sometimes represented in pop culture, but she didn't see anything in the VRBO commercial that represented Newfoundland to her.
Like Locke, Mills doesn't think most people would link it to what this province has to offer.
"I don't see Newfoundland and Labrador in this commercial," Mills told CBC News in an interview.
But she acknowledges that others may see things differently, depending on their own attachment to the song I'se the B'y.
"People's takes on it are totally valid. If you think it's inappropriate, it's inappropriate," said Mills. "The intention of the commercial makers is not necessarily what is the takeaway from people viewing that."
For her part, Hospitality NL chair Deborah Bourden said she's all for good humour and fun but, in this case, the commercial goes too far.
"The tourism industry is a very serious business here in our province," she said. "It's what helps keep rural Newfoundland alive and thriving, as well as preserving our culture."
Bourden said 20,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians work in the tourism sector, so any implication that the rural visitor experience is undesirable is unfortunate.
Bourden even has a suggestion for a better song to go along with the visuals VRBO had selected.
"Maybe it would have been better if they'd used Old MacDonald," she said.
Not poking fun at N.L.
CBC contacted VRBO for a response to the controversy the commercial has created.
In a statement, a VRBO spokesperson said: "The spot pokes fun at our competition, not anyone in Newfoundland."
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism has responded on its social media accounts with a video of its own, using what it calls "our song" along with images of desirable scenes of the province more typically found in Newfoundland and Labrador tourism commercials.
The message alongside the video reads in part: "A song so distinctly ours that you can almost feel the salt air on your skin when you hear it."