Tim Hortons and the Immigrant Experience

This morning I had breakfast with some American friends who have been up in Vancouver for the Olympics. We discussed this Tim Horton’s ad that tells the story of the reunion of an African family in a snowy Canadian airport:

It’s pretty touching, in a corporate coffee commercial kind of way. In a minute, the ad explores those two pillars of Canadian culture: the immigrant experience and Tim Horton’s.

Tim Horton’s is, of course, a much-loved Canadian brand. It’s also an incredibly mainstream brand–there’s nothing edgy about the Timmy. So this ad isn’t meant to provocatively appeal to the coasts–it’s a commercial for every Canadian watching the Olympics. And I think it’s probably appealing. We are, of course, nearly all immigrants to this land.

My American friends explained that this commercial would never, ever air in the United States. They said that there’s simply too much ill will and anger around immigration. It would mean corporate suicide for a big company to run this piece in the States.

I can’t say that I was surprised by their observation, but it’s a little sad. It’s also a reminder of how, in certain respects, we’re so different from our neighbours–spelled with the ‘u’–to the south.

UPDATE: John sent along this Globe and Mail story which explains that:

  • The people in the ad are, in fact, actors.
  • The ad isn’t based on one particular story.

This should come as a shock to no one.


  1. I think more Americans would be unhappy with this ad, because it features immigrants who are people of color. It makes me wonder if the ad would fly in the States if it featured some Caucasian immigrants from the UK or Australia.

  2. I first saw this commercial during the Olympics Opening Ceremonies and it brought a tear to my eye. Which made me a feel a bit silly, given that it is a corporate coffee commercial. But I hadn’t really thought of how it wouldn’t really fly in the US given their “ill will and anger around immigration” – but now that you mention it, I think you are totally right. I’m glad that in Canada most of us recognize that we are immigrants and and can see the beauty of this story of a family reunited, embracing Canada as their home. Even if it is a coffee commercial. For coffee that, quite honestly, isn’t very good.

    Also, it’s interesting that Tim Horton’s – this “much-loved Canadian brand” is owned by an American company.

    1. Beth Tim Horton’s is a publicly traded company on both the NY and Toronto stock exchanges. So it belongs to whoever chooses to buy the shares.

      It was bought out some time ago by Wendy’s but has since been split from that company to be listed independently.

  3. It also never occurred to me that it wouldn’t work in the U.S., but it also seems extra-poignant after the Haiti earthquake (though the family doesn’t sound Haitian).

    I think one small reason Canadians might be less fraught about immigration is summed up at the end: while immigrants to America stereotypically imagine the golden palm-tree streets of L.A., here they need to make sure they have parkas for the blizzard outside the airport. In other words, you really need to want to be here.

    1. Not true in Vancouver! Here, they need to prepare themselves with raincoats and umbrellas. And a travel mug…. for an independently-owned, organically-grown, fair trade coffee joint. 🙂

    2. On a related point, I had a brief debate with myself as to whether I could safely identify this family as ‘African’, as opposed to, for example, Caribbean. I thought the male actor’s accent and actress’s costuming sufficiently implied Africa, but I could be wrong.

    3. Derek,

      I think you have to really want to be in both countries: it’s expensive, difficult, and a very long process for immigrants to either place. And as the commercial shows and my own experience backs up: many immigrants to Canada don’t know how cold it truly is, and aren’t prepared (or dissuaded) by our weather.

      If what you’re saying is that some people really WANT to be in the Canada because they picture it as a better place, with fewer class distinctions, freedom of religion, safe and not war-torn, that provides excellent opportunities for education, housing, health care and employment — well, you can be critical of both countries on these counts but I still think it’s safe to say both the U.S. and Canada are better off than most other countries.

      The difference, I think, is simply the number of people each country lets in; Canada has higher limits and a somewhat less difficult process. If you just want to live in North America, pick Canada.

  4. When I first saw this commercial, my first thought was “corny”. I think this came from seeing years of the Tim Hortons hockey commercials, which I was never a big fan of because (gasp!) I don’t really like hockey. And yes, I’m Canadian.

    I guess I also reacted to the commercial because I figure they don’t need to keep advertising Tim Hortons through television. Yes, I’m in marketing. But they’re not going to convert any Starbucks or Second Cup loyalists to drinking Tim Hortons – never! And the millions who are addicted to the odd taste of TH coffee – they tend to think that coffee should only taste like that; they’re not moving over to the “dark side” – cushy coffee chains – anytime soon.

    I should probably mention that I’m not a TH coffee fan.

    That aside, the second time I watched the commercial, and perhaps because we’re in the wake of a flood of Canadian national pride due to the Olympics, I thought, you know what? That does set us apart. “Canadianisms” intrigue me, and having lived in the US, immigration is definately one of those areas that makes us different. I have many thoughts on the subject, but I’ll leave it at that.

    The commercial did make me reflect on this great country we live in.

  5. The first time I saw the ad, it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I said nearly, dammit. shut up! ok. maybe one leaked out. just one.

    I can’t stand Timmy’s coffee. I get that it’s just a corporate coffee ad. But there was something about it. Something so basic and Canadian. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

    Maybe it’s that the ad wouldn’t fly elsewhere? But here, seeing brown people from other places calling this country home is nothing less than awesome. I’m proud of my country for having this sentiment as part of our national identity. No walls built on our borders. No fugee camps.

  6. I too get teary each time much to my horror. I love how he orders the coffee with cream and sugar as opposed to the Hortons way which is a double double or single single – that difference is what made the commerical work for me – he’s accustomed but he’s not over branded.

  7. Looks like we can probably agree that it’s a good commercial, even if some people might think of the basic message as, “Welcome to Canada, better get used to drinking this swill.”

    (I don’t mind Tim’s coffee at all, though I drink numerous kinds.)

  8. I didn’t like this commercial. As someone else noted, I’m accustomed to Tim Horton’s commercials being “corny”. Plus, I don’t drink coffee, period.

    Sorry, I’m just not feeling it, but I suppose that’s art.

  9. As I watch these Olympics, I have been conflicted about what I’ve seen as Canada’s new brand – a bold, brash, cocky Canada presented to the world through programs like Own the Podium in a less than traditionally modest Canadian way.

    This new brand, to me, is equally reflective of our changing role in the world – that of war maker rather than peace keeper – that of staunch obstacle to climate action – that of America’s uncritical, rather than critical, ally.

    I’m lead to wonder how long it will be before the old phrase “I like Americans, I just don’t like their government” will fit “Canadians” equally well – and whether sewing a Canadian flag on their backpacks will continue to make young American’s travel experiences abroad any better.

    Then I see this ad, which makes me incredibly proud of Canada – not because of Tim’s coffee or how its built an empire on crappy coffee and reheated donuts. No, its because some incredibly well paid advertising firm whose motivation is much more pure than that of our politicians – a firm whose motivation is solely to sell more coffee and donuts – has done the research and believes that this is what sells in Canada!

    My pride, quickly dissipates to sadness, however – as I am stuck with painful awareness that no politician and no political party in Canada is currently able to capture our imagination and national identity as well as Tim Horton’s and their ad agency.

  10. I found this advertisement very distasteful (mind you, I generally find the very concept of advertising distasteful and wasteful, so it’s to be expected).

    As Darren notes above, it’s not necessarily clear that the family is “African” or “Afro-Caribbean”. There are a few clues at the beginning of the ad, like the few words of the man’s “native” language spoken while he’s on his phone, and some pictures of his “home country” which he caresses while on the phone… not to mention the “foreign clothing” that the woman is wearing. But Darren’s correct – the ad doesn’t make it clear (and that’s likely intentional to ‘generalize’ the immigrant experience).

    When I first saw the ad (short version of it), I assumed that the family was Haitian. Yes, I know that Haitians would typically speak French, not English, but cheap language dubbing has never been an obstacle on television anyways (think of all the war movies where Germans speak English, etc.). So it’s plausible.

    Following the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti, the immigration process was expedited for a very few Haitians who already had initiated the process. This ad fits that scenario, because the “father” had clearly already established residency in Canada (as evident from his fully furnished apartment). Thus, assuming the Haitian connection, I thought the ad was distasteful in the sense that a wealthy corporation that serves coffee unfairly-produced in the “developing world” was trying to turn the Haitian plight into a money-making scheme.

    Yet even if we assume the immigrants are from elsewhere, the ad is still problematic. It suggests that Canadian immigrants are non-white, (when in fact all white people are in some way immigrants to the continent of the Americas). And to suggest that immigrants are unaware of Canada’s climate is, well, just plain insulting.

    Finally, the notion that Tim Hortons is some kind of important aspect of the Canadian immigrant’s experience – the idea that to be “Canadian” you have to indulge in crappy robusta blend blandness – is ridiculous.

    1. @Organic Intellectual:

      Looks like you’re just looking for a reason to be offended. You assume the family is Haitian, even though the ad never points in that direction, and get offended.

      You get offended because the ad “suggests immigrants are non-white” – I think that no matter what colour the people in the commercial were, you would have a comment of this sort. Come on, if you’re going to make a commercial about a single family, they can’t be EVERY colour.

      You say the ad suggests that they didn’t know anything about Canada’s climate, which is ridiculous – they are dressed for the weather. Maybe you’re offended that they look amazed by snow falling in the parking lot? Talk to some real immigrants from tropical countries and ask how they felt when they saw snow for the first time in their lives– real people react with amazement, too.

      I thought the ad was sweet. Stop looking for every and any little reason to be outraged and show everyone how “intellectual” you are.

  11. This ad brings tears to my eyes. It reminds me of when I lived in Ottawa. I was so amazed to meet people who’d migrated from hotter climates, such as African. I lived at the Ottawa Y for 3 months and most of my neighbours were from Somalia and war-torn African countries, although some had come from Southeast Asia. Having always taken climate for granted on the West Coast, I was heartened to see that these people had chosen (or had to choose?) -43C Ottawa, complete with ice storms and blizzards, over their homelands. When I see the Tim’s ad, with the little girl in a full snowsuit, I can only imagine what a foreign experience that would be, filled with both adventure and fear. I have a child the same age and it’s near impossible to get him dressed, let alone into a snowsuit after a long flight to a new country!

  12. FWIW, I always pegged the nationality as Haitian given the MTL airport setting and the large Haitian community in MTL — which isn’t to say I’m correct. But is there an identity here, or a blurring of them? In this respect what is more interesting to dissect is the (intentional?) ambiguity between Afro-Caribbean & African continental nationalities as blurred into the “black immigrant experience” for white liberals who can’t quite decipher the markers of ethnocultural identity (which here, again, are probably intentionally blurred). This is key to the ad’s effect in generating an affective response among its target audience. If it precisely identified an ethnic group, its emotional resonance would be limited. And that this ad quickly follows on the Haitian earthquake is I think no coincidence…

  13. You all have good points, now here is mine…
    I know tons and tons of people that DO love TH coffee, it is a ritual. (I can not drink it and have not done so since they switched their supplier in 1999.) Even though, I understand the logic behind their commercials and I love them. They are trying to show the “real” people, the average working person, the grandparents, the young adults, the immigrants, the social diversity of our country Canada. That the average person here uses TH as their local “hang-out”, that they use it all times of the day, all situations.
    And by the way, for the people I know that love this brand, it is truth!
    It is a social point, for all types of people. It is there during emergencies, during work days, during travel, during births (as one commercial had it), during sports events, it is always. THAT is the point.
    I love the Tim Horton’s commercials, I truly think that whom ever is the designer behind it has a broad appeal and touching taste. “Corny” or not. To me, when I see a commercial like this, I like to see it again, it doesn’t fall into to the “I wish they would get rid of that one!” category. Timeless. Tasteful. Appealing.
    That is my view.

  14. This one is a WINNER…every time I see it…brings tears to me eyes…What a beautiful commercial…!

  15. it’s funny. my sister and i just had a long conversation about this ad that began with her exclaiming, “This is racist as hell!”

    clearly, there are some cues we detected that perhaps require a certain cultural background. i picked up on them and so did my sister. i can almost guarantee that our peers would see them pretty clearly, too.

    do we really think it’s a racist commercial? no. but i certainly don’t get the “warm and fuzzies” i usually do from t/h ads on this one. too much head scratching.

  16. This isl true emotional porn, and kind of double exploitative since it is designed to make the “Canadian feel good multiculturalist consumers” feel good about buying the coffee (like donating to a good cause, remembering the happily united, emotional black couple), and also explore the strong emotions of fear, hope, longing of newly landed immigrants. An appalling and exploitative way to earn some extra bugs. They should be forced to drop it.

  17. I really enojy this commercial except I am wondering why doesn’t he order anything for the children. He knew they were coming because he bought them clothes!!!!

  18. As an American living in Canada, I strongly disagree with the idea that this wouldn’t appeal to an American audience. The US is also an immigrant nation with a wildly popular 1/2 African president. Have you ridden a subway in NYC anytime recently?

  19. I’m not Black but I’m a visible minority. This is racist. Coloured man living in a public housing complex shopping at the thirfty store etc. I’m surprised there are much reaction to this commercial.

    This is their story.
    The husband, Efonyeh was a Chemical engineer in Kenya. He wanted to come to Canada. HE saved his money and earned enough for himself to come to Canada. The chemical company he worked for had a office in Toronto. When he came to Canada they told him they would not hire him until he had Canadian experience. So he came out west. The only job he could get was working at Tim Horton¹s.

    He worked here 6 months saving enough money to bring his wife Josephine (an Electrical Engineer) and 2 kids over.

    The commercial depicts their reunion when Josephine and children finally came to Canada. It was actually snowing hard the day they landed in Toronto. They worked two shifts at Tim Horton¹s. He would work the opposite shift from Josephine so that they could care for their children.

    Since they came here, they have had another child. He is currently
    completing his Petroleum Engineering degree in Calgary and has just received a job in Edmonton. They will be moving very soon.

    Efonyeh wrote Tim Horton¹s head office with his story and they turned it into the commercial you now see through the Olympics.

  21. I watched this ad several times and I am almost 100% sure that I have watched and listened this man in the ad before in another circumstance that I will not disclose at this time. It is my impression that he is an actor. I have been trying to remember his name but I come up blank each time. I did not actually speak with him; I was a part of an audience.

    I have no doubt that he is African. And for those who question whether he is from Africa or the Caribbean, just look at the head wear of his wife. Typically, Afro-Caribbean women do not wear head wear, unless they are muslim. And muslims are not many in numbers in that part of the world.

    On the other hand, it is not uncommon for women from various African countries to wear head wrap with no reference to religion. Also, the accent of the wife is another clue. She does not sound Caribbean. Mind you, there are a range of different dialects of English spoken even in single countries, let alone the region.

    To the person who says that he is an engineer, who knows. You maybe right. Many people who come to Canada have to survive (even if initially) by jobs which they had never contemplated before.

  22. I had a hard time stretching the relationship between Tim Hortons and immigrants, unless of course you are relating the people who work there. Quite frankly, I would like to see more European and specifically caucasian immigrants in Canada.

    The problem with the Asian and African immigrants is that they do not promote a sense of community. I for one am sick of changing to meet their needs instead of them being thankful for the opportunity to better themselves here and undertake the change to realize that betterment.

    Moving to Canada should not be viewed as some sort of entitlement on the immigrants part.

    1. Daniel, I am curious. What exactly have you changed to meet the “needs” of Asian and African immigrants?

  23. The people are actors. It is BASED on a true story. The casting call specifically asked for black actors who had African accents.

    Come on, did you think the footage of the little Chinese kid in last year’s tearjerker was real or an actor?

  24. To me, the spirit of this commercial is far more Canadian than the loud chest-thumping “Canadianism” that has been evident the last week.

    From that god-awful monologue in the opening ceremonies, I have cringed at the style of the emergent “patriotism”. For me it culminated on Saturday, around 7:00 pm or so walking down Robson, while a teenager draped in the Canadian flag chant-shouting “Canada Rocks” alternating to periodically jab a finger at whoever was passing by with another flag (often an American flag) “(name of other country) sucks”.

    I want no part of that attitude, and found it very troubling. My heart does swell with pride at the accomplishment of our athletes, and the games themselves – the volunteers for instance, the inuksuks along False Creek, but to there is a line between Canadian-style patriotism and unCanadian styles of patriotism. Our brand and style is still evolving – there is no shame in that, and I genuinely hope that these games prove to be a step forward in that quest, and not a step towards something not us.

  25. It’s funny to think that Americans would get their panties in a knot over the issue of immigration in this ad.

    As a coffee drinking Canadian, I didn’t think twice about welcoming new folks into my country. The thing that bugged me was that this dude’s family had probably been on their feet traveling for who knows how long and the best he could bring them was Tim Hortons?

    He probably passed 10-15 independently owned and operated coffee shops, the least he could have done was brought them a decent cup of joe from a hard working and community oriented small business no?

  26. I don’t think Americans are anti-immigrant. I think they are anti illegal immigrant. If there were 1.5 million illegal immigrant Russians in Canada via the Bering Straight, I think there would be alot of people up in arms.

  27. The polls tend to show both countries have a lot of reservations about immigration. There’s even less political debate about it in Canada than the States, though, which tends to create a phony impression that it’s somehow less controversial here.

  28. Well… if I’d seen this on TV, five minutes later I wouldn’t have been able to tell you it was Tim Horton’s… But the idea that this wouldn’t fly in the United States is just plain false. Very, very few people in the US are against immigration. What they’re against is illegal immigration, and despite the two issues being conflated in all the news reports, they are two very different things. Canada doesn’t have an illegal immigration problem, so a lot of Canadians simply don’t understand that difference (and the media never explains the difference either), or how important that difference is to a lot of Americans.

    In fact, you can google for US ads about immigrants and easily find half a dozen. So your American friends either a) Haven’t actually been to the US for a few decades, b) Are pulling your leg or c) Are trying to make you feel good about being a multicultural Canadian. Take your pick.

    1. Canada doesn’t have an illegal immigration problem??? There are 150k illegal immigrants of the chinese persuasion alone….dummy.

      1. and who knows how many mexican and south americans.. i know cause i run a cleaning business and if i had a nickle for every time i heard “u pay cash? oh no sorry i no work”

  29. I don`t know why anyone would think the family were Haitian. I think anyone who did that and then denounced the ad because they think the ad is exploiting the crisis is just looking for a something to complain about. The family sounds and looks African. I have captioned TV and the captions don`t just produce the words that are said, they also give explanations of background noises, etc. When the father was speaking on the telephone, the caption indicated that he was speaking in a Bantu language. That covers hundreds of languages including those spoken in Kenya. The family could be from any one of dozens of countries in central or southern Africa but Kenya makes sense because of the way they also speak English well. Most Africans speak several languages, often slip back and forth between them sometimes even within the same sentences.

  30. I know the actor who played the part in this ad is Canadian born but I think the ad clearly created the impression of a family from Africa reuniting. I also think it is wrong for people to say the ad is racist because the wife isn`t aware of the cold. There is a big difference between reading about cold and actually feeling it for the first time.

    1. very touching…if you’re an idiot. Now what would be touching is if they were meeting at the airport to go back to where they are from…sniff..sniff I think I am gonna cry just thinking about it.

  31. You should check the sites http://www.thetdlgroupltd.com which is the company that owns Tim Hortons. This name is owned by people who are starting a campaign to tell the truth about what this company is all about and are gathering former franchisees to share their horrifying experiences of owning a Tim Hortons. And the site http://www.timhortonslies.wordpress.com is also another site detailing the way this company operates.

  32. As an ESL teacher is find this ad infuriating. The number of my students that get work at Tim Hortons and end up working unpaid overtime is astounding. I know the corporate office can’t always know what’s going on in the franchises, I’m just telling you what I see. This commercial makes me physically ill.

    1. overtime is not a simple as it sounds. if the company employs a bonus structure or days of in lieu then payment of overtime as salary is not an obligation.

      this commerical makes me physical ill as well but only because of all the blacks and asians that we allow into this country. Are we not learning anything from countries like France and the UK?

  33. The immigrant wife had most likely not had a bowel movement since she left her country of origin, and the husband thought Timmy’s would do a good job of cleaning her out!

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