Photo: Sander van der Wel, CC BY-SA 2.0
Hot on the heels of Kendall Jenner trying to save the world with Pepsi and white feminism, Heineken released an advertisement that was probably in development for quite some time but was timed so fortuitously that I’m willing to bet that sacrifices to various gods were involved. The ad declares itself “Worlds Apart”: An Experiment.
In the introduction, the words “two strangers divided by their beliefs meet for the first time” are intercut with clips of said strangers introducing their beliefs, and said strangers meeting in the middle of a large warehouse. The text then informs us “Each knows nothing about the other or what this experiment involves” and then asks “Is there more that unites than divides us?”
Each pairing is asked to work together to put together IKEA-ish furniture (which the advertisers should know is actually the best way to ruin a friendship). Then they are each asked to describe themselves in five adjectives. They build more furniture, and realize they’ve put together a bar, and they are instructed to put two Heinekens on the bar.
Then the introductory videos are projected, so the two individuals know that they have just put together a Kvorjskaken with a person who is their ideological opposite. Big Brother the experiment voice tells them that they have the choice to leave, or to discuss their differences over a beer. All pairings decide to stay and discuss (and drink, the drinking is important). They find various ways to discuss how the important part of a disagreement is engagement, being brought to see new ideas, etc. The final text is “open your mind open your world” before the Heineken logo appears.
As Elle Hunt summarizes, the advertisement has received mostly positive responses:
Whether or not work on the Worlds Apart campaign predates Pepsi’s PR disaster – the production value suggests so – it was released soon enough after for the comparison to be inevitable. “Hey Pepsi, Here’s How It’s Done,” wrote AdWeek. “Heineken Takes On Our Differences, And Nails It.”
Fast Company proclaimed it the “antidote” to the now-infamous production in which model Kendall Jenner brings protesters and police together with a can of soft drink. The general tenor of the coverage has been that Heineken has succeeded where Pepsi failed so spectacularly.
The advertisement has its share of criticism as well, as you can likely glean from the title of DiDi Delgado’s article, “The Heineken Ad Is Worse Than The Pepsi Ad, You’re Just Too Stupid To Know It.”
My own opinion falls somewhere in between those two extremes. (Also, Richard tells me that calling our readers stupid is A Bit Not Good, so I’m just gonna try to avoid that.)
So first, what the ad does well (especially when compared to the Jenner ad).
- It doesn’t try to position itself as the sole savior of humanity
Unlike brands that rhyme with Shmepsi, Heineken is not trying to say that its own product is the perfect object that will bridge the divide between all people everywhere. The ad doesn’t show the climate change believer handing a Heineken to the climate change denier and the denier exclaiming, “Dear God I’ve been so wrong, I must save the polar bears!” Instead it positions itself as a tool, a social lubricant to encourage discussion. (If someone was going to film me talking to someone who told me I was necessary to have his babies, I’d need way more than one beer.)
- It understands the importance of education and dialogue
Multiple studies have shown that one of the best ways to get people to commit to social change is to humanize the issue. That’s why arguments like “you should care about sexual assault because it could happen to your mother/sister/daughter” are often effective, much as part of me wants to scream “You should care about sexual assault because sexual assault survivors are people, not because they’re related to you!” Putting a human face on a problem is a good way to make people care about it more, and for most people with an ounce of tact and shame, it’s a lot harder to say “I think you shouldn’t exist” to someone’s face than it is to say it to a camera or on a message board. (Of course, with enough compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, it’s possible to have an issue humanized as much as possible and still be an obtuse asshole. Like the lady who voted for Trump even though she was married to an undocumented immigrant because she thought he was only going to deport the “bad” immigrants.)
- It shows encouraging signs of people being able to change their minds
As someone who semi-professionally screams into the void, I can attest to the fact that one of the most discouraging things is that I rarely, if ever, get confirmation that my work is actually doing any good, that I have actually changed any hearts and minds, or that more than five people actually read this. The ad does show the pairs finally reaching some common ground, which is encouraging for a lot of emotionally drained social justice warriors. (Or social justice bards. You roll up the social justice-inspired character that works for you.)
Now for what it gets wrong:
- Oh holy shit the framing.
One of my biggest complaints with the media over the past couple decades is that we have confused “objectivity” with “neutrality,” and in order to appear “fair and balanced,” many media outlet gives equal weight to experts and lay people, and makes it seem as if people who are objectively wrong have just as valid of an opinion as people who are objectively right. If you put a climate scientist on a panel with a climate change-denying politician, you have not put together a “balanced“ panel; you have equated the opinion of someone who is objectively right (the climate scientist) with someone who is objectively wrong (the climate change-denying politician). And that is what this advertisement is doing, but to a dangerous scale that actually denies its participants personhood.
The advertisement opens by describing its participants as “two strangers divided by their beliefs.” But half of their participants aren’t representing “beliefs.” They are representing facts. Climate change is real. Women are equal to men. Trans people exist and are, in fact, people. These are not “beliefs.” These are stone-cold facts. To represent these participants as the ideological opposites of their counterparts is at best disingenuous and at worst dangerous, as it perpetuates the notion that there is anything left to debate about whether or not climate change is real, women are equal, or trans people are people. There isn’t. And these people representing factual things are brought down to the same level as their (wrong) counterparts. In the commercial, the feminist of color and the trans woman are “right” in that they get to exist as human beings who should hopefully have a full share of equality and being considered human, but they’re put at the same footing as people who say “you exist to have our babies” and “there are just two genders.” As Delgado puts it: “It pushes the idea that bigotry, sexism, and transphobia are just differences of opinion that are up for debate, and deserving of civil discourse and equal consideration.”
- The framing, but like, more
There was a way that Heineken could have arranged this that would have solved a LOT of the problems with the framing, and that is by acknowledging that half of their participants are objectively wrong. If they had framed it as “climate change denier, anti-feminist, and trans-denialist have their minds changed by discussion with their ‘opponents’” it could have made this whole thing leagues more comfortable. By changing the framing to acknowledge that one of the sides is objectively more factual than the other, the advertisement could have kept the takeaway message about the importance of education, humanization, and discourse in solving social problems. But instead they insisted on a framing wherein both parties ostensibly had a “takeaway.” It isn’t so much “bigots are confronted with the humanity of their opponent” as it is “both sides *learned* something today.” And again, by insisting that people who are objectively right needed to “learn” something about their opponents, we’re equating two things that cannot and should not be equated. (And believe me, many oppressed individuals are completely aware their opponents are just human. That’s what makes them so terrifying.)
- The actual physical and emotional danger that the advertisers expose their participants to
The advertisement claims that the two parties know nothing about one another before they meet. And if that’s true, that is absolutely horrifying, and shows a blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of the participants. Here I’m not so worried about the Climate Change Dude (who barely talks in this thing anyway) as I am about the feminist of color and the trans woman. In their cases, they have been purposefully, deliberately paired with individuals who deny their existence, their worth, and their humanity. Dick move, Heineken. As a feminist and a lady, I feel like “the person you are talking to doesn’t think my life or perspective are valid” is a “surprise” I might run into literally every time I go out. But I also don’t have robotic overseers deliberately acting to force me to interact with someone who doesn’t think that my life or perspective are valid. And I’m definitely not pressured by socialization, good manners, and a video camera to continue talking to someone who has just admitted to yet another camera that they think I’m what’s wrong with the country. The trans woman and the feminist are not just finding out that they’ve been building furniture with someone who likes a different reincarnation of Doctor Who than they do (the correct one is 10, btw) they find out they have been interacting with someone who doesn’t think their existence is valid. That’s not a “disagreement,” that’s a denial of humanity. And then they’re strongly encouraged to have a beer with that person. I think that might count as torture under the Geneva Convention.
- It encourages the idea that it is the duty of the oppressed to explain their humanity to their oppressors
Or in the words of Delgado, “It tricks you into thinking social problems can be resolved if only people tolerate their oppression just a LITTLE while longer.” Yes, I acknowledge that calling people bigots is not always the best way to win hearts and minds. Yes, I acknowledge that in order to make social change happen, it will often fall on the people who are themselves oppressed to calmly, patiently, and repeatedly explain to their oppressors what the problem is. But I also feel like it is not too much to ask that people do a little bit of work on their own to be “woke.” Asking a feminist to explain sexism to a misogynist or asking a trans individual to explain the validity of their identity to someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of trans people carries some pretty strong traces of a bully telling someone to stop hitting themselves: the people being asked to explain are not the people in the positions of power. Asking a feminist and a trans woman to sit patiently and explain their value as people to bigots (or if we are being incredibly generous, the willfully uneducated) is asking them to tolerate their oppression for just a little bit more in order to hopefully solve social ills. While it is likely true that oppressed individuals will be called on multiple times to explain their struggle to the very people in a position to change that, it doesn’t mean that we have to glorify this power imbalance in a commercial.
So on balance, Heineken does some things way better than the Pepsi ad, and some things way worse than the Pepsi ad. Obviously Heineken’s main goal is to sell beer, and not to solve social issues. But if they’re going to use said social issues as a method to sell beer, then they have the responsibility to do so in a safe, thoughtful way. They have a platform. They need to either learn to use it better, or leave shit like this to the semi-professional void screamers.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain the challenges of ad campaigns that pretend their products will help solve the world’s problems, she studies gender in popular culture.
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