Last weekend, Amazon released an ad for its Prime Air drone delivery system, which shows a compelling demonstration of a pair of shoes being delivered to a home by some sort of helicopter-airplane hybrid. The ad wasn’t just notable for revealing one of the company’s new drone designs, though: it prominently featured Jeremy Clarkson, the British television personality that Amazon hired after his dismissal from BBC earlier this year. Clarkson’s new show debuts soon, so Amazon was able to kill two promotional birds with a single stone by featuring him in the ad.
Under Clarkson’s stewardship, Top Gear became one of the most compelling and captivating shows on television — a rare work that successfully bridged the gap between automotive enthusiasts and a broader, general audience. Clarkson’s Top Gear worked on two levels: if you loved cars, you liked it for the cars and the hosts’ earnest assessments of them; if you didn’t, you were still entertained by the ridiculous stunts. And Clarkson, along with co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May, were rewarded handsomely: by the end of its run, their version of Top Gear was a global sensation. Clarkson was making £1 million (about $1.5 million) a year.
Where to begin?
But as good as Top Gear was, and as good as his Amazon show may end up being, Clarkson is also an unhinged, racist blowhard who doesn’t deserve a television program or our admiration.
Where to begin? Let’s start with last year’s two-part Top Gear special from Burma; in one scene, an Asian man crosses a wooden bridge as Clarkson and Hammond look on. "There’s a slope on it," Clarkson says. ("You’re right," Hammond replies. "It’s definitely higher on that side.") "Slope," a derogatory and racist term for an individual of Asian descent, has no place on television. Clarkson has never apologized for the incident, even after British broadcast regulator Ofcom ruled that the show’s use of the term was "deliberate."
In another incident, Clarkson is seen muttering "catch a n*** by his toe" in raw, unaired audio from a segment while choosing between two cars. He did actually apologize for this one, which was later rendered meaningless when he joked that his bosses had told him he was on thin ice and that he should "arrive at work on a bicycle with a copy of the Guardian under [his] arm." (BBC dubbed over the scene in the aired episode.)
There are a half-dozen other examples out there of Clarkson acting stupidly toward humanity. (This list from Metro is a good place to start.) But let’s not overlook the reason he was fired from the Beeb in the first place: he physically assaulted a co-worker, producer Oisin Tymon, when he was told that there wasn’t any catering available at a hotel after a day of production. Picture yourself in a position to hire employees: would you hire a guy who had just been fired for assaulting a colleague over food? Is that the kind of person you’d want in your ranks? Is it fair to your other employees? What kind of message does it send?
Amazon is reportedly paying this man — a man who has, again, recently assaulted a co-worker and wasn’t charged in large part because that co-worker declined to press charges — £30 million, or $44.8 million, for three seasons of his new show. That’s a 10-times increase over his BBC salary. Quite a reward for being an aggressively unfriendly asshole!
Clarkson's well-burnished personal brand trumps his status as a bad human being
Hollywood seems to have successfully marginalized Mel Gibson after he turned into a racist lunatic, so it’s unclear why the entertainment industry is unable to do the same with Clarkson. It sends a pathetic signal, which is that your well-burnished personal brand — a money-making brand — trumps your status as a bad human being. Would Amazon tolerate Clarkson’s track record had he been hired into literally any other department of the company? Cynically, perhaps they would for an executive, a moneymaker, or a person in a position of great power, but I’d like to think they wouldn’t. I’d bet that even Prime Air, the very team he’s promoting in this latest ad spot, would fire an engineer on the spot for even a single one of Clarkson’s "incidents" over the past decade.
If nothing else, at a very baseline level of human decency, Amazon should be distancing itself from the kind of repetitive casual racism that Clarkson stands for. If Jeff Bezos and company are going to sell their values in the name of a high-dollar TV show, well, that sucks, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Using him to sell Amazon’s other products and services, though — just months after his latest and most unacceptable incident yet — elevates him from a mercenary hire to a corporate partner.