The Heineken ‘Worlds Apart’ Ad: Corporate Social Justice Done Right

Finally, a corporate attempt at social awareness advertising that does not devolve into sanctimonious progressive preaching

It generally doesn’t end well when big corporations decide to prove their right-on, progressive credentials with a slick new TV advertisement.

Only four months ago, Pepsi found itself on the receiving end of a heap of bad PR when their insipid commercial, featuring celebrity with no discernible talent Kylie Jenner, was deemed to be trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement (the gravest sin that it is presently possible to commit).

The Pepsi ad was certainly stupid, but not because it made light of a movement which is by no means as pure of character as it likes to pretend. No, the problem with the Pepsi ad was that it tried to cast the soft drink manufacturer in a positive light by clinging on to the coattails of various protest movements, and casting its brown sugary liquid as the balm that could ease tensions between Generic Oppressed Communities and the police. It was glib and superficial and insulting to everyone who was portrayed in it.

And unfortunately that’s how it is with most ads that try to paint the responsible corporation in a positive light by embracing the latest progressive fad or injunction from the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. They politicise that which should not be politicised, needlessly sow division over politically contentious issues, waste shareholder money to burnish the reputations of certain executives and generally fail to serve the corporation’s customers. In Britain, Channel 4’s cynical and self-serving “Gay Mountain” ad, timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is another awful example of tawdry corporate behaviour.

That’s not to say that all such ads are bad – by all means, corporations should wade into social territory when the product and the issue actually have some connection with each other and there is a worthy goal in mind. The #LikeAGirl ad campaign by Always, for example, is actually quite moving and packs a real impact. This Barbie ad isn’t half bad either.

Other social justice ads fall into the grey zone, not terrible but not particularly praiseworthy either – or else just plain confusing. Procter & Gamble’s recent ad “The Talk“, highlighting the fact that African American parents have had to teach their children resilience techniques and shore up their self-esteem in ways that white parents generally have not, makes a valid and moving historical point. But it is never quite clear why Procter & Gamble is the one to be making the ad, other than that they cynically calculated that they can burnish their corporate credentials by conspicuously attaching their brand to the worthy cause of anti-racism.

But best of all recent ads where a large corporation dips its toe into the roiling waters of social issues is this one by Heineken, entitled “Worlds Apart“. What makes it so good? The fact that it does not seek to preach any specific value or social outcome besides the importance of tolerance and mutual respect which is too often missing in public discourse. Rather than shoving a particular social cause down the throats of consumers, the ad dares to suggest that more than one opinion (the progressive one) may have value, and that issues should be discussed rather than dissent shut down.

The ad is shot like a reality show, putting various pairs of strangers with diametrically opposed opinions on various issues – feminism, transgenderism, climate change and so on – in a room together, having them perform various icebreaking tasks including assembling furniture, describing both themselves and their partner using five adjectives and then just talking together about their life experiences. It sounds corny, but it actually works quite well – watch the video at the top of this article.

The final task given to the various pairs of strangers is to assemble a construction out of wooden blocks – which turns out to be a bar (see what they did there?) Having cooperated and bonded with each other while completing various tasks, they each then have to watch a video in which the other person talks to the camera about their opinions of various relevant hot-button issues. It then becomes clear that the feminist was paired with the anti-feminist, the climate change sceptic with the environmentalist, the transgender woman with the man who scorned the idea of transgenderism. Having discovered this truth about their partner, they are then offered a choice – either they can leave and never see each other again, or they can discuss their differences over a beer at the bar they just constructed together.

This really is quite effective. You see the shock on each person’s face as they realise this uncomfortable truth about the stranger with whom they have been working and bonding during the various tasks. You see hints of confusion and almost betrayal on some of their faces as they weigh the competing facts – that they got on well with the person, know them through their brief interactions to be decent, yet that they stand on opposite sides of major social wedge issues. Spoiler alert: they all end up deciding to stay and discuss their differences over a nice cool Heineken.

This is a good ad. Firstly in terms of product promotion, it positions Heineken beer as something over which sane, rational people can discuss their differences like adults. In real life, people do discuss their problems and bond over beer. Unlike the Procter & Gamble ad, there is a valid reason for Heineken to be making this commercial. And what’s more, despite only being a commercial the various interactions feel ten times more real than President Obama’s very real and much-publicised “beer summit” in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy.

But more than that, the ad is good because it doesn’t force a set outcome. It doesn’t end with the transgenderism sceptic acknowledging the error of his ways, confessing his sin and being absolved, or the anti-feminist checking his male privilege. Rather, knowing that their partner is more than the sum of his or her political opinions, the various couples are able to forge bonds of mutual respect and friendship. Like adults used to do in the days before social media turbo-charged identity politics.

So why does Heineken succeed where so many other corporations have failed? Again, it’s those three reasons:

  1. A clear link between the issues at stake (in this case various hot-button social issues) and the product (people often discuss their differences over a beer)
  2. Not forcing a preset outcome, and acknowledging that people can be good despite coming down on different sides of an issue
  3. Not alienating any of their customers by charging in with a preachy, absolutist message

If corporations are going to continue to dip their toes into social issues then we need more ads like this. Right now it feels like society is fraying, sometimes even in danger of coming apart at the seams, fuelled by a toxic blend of identity politics zealots, genuine bigots, people who simply dislike being preached to and those who profit from creating friction between them.

Too many people in positions of authority – politicians, media personalities, self-appointed community leaders – fail to encourage understanding and respectful disagreement, preferring to foment mutual intolerance. Only today I was publicly and ostentatiously defriended by a respected acquaintance, someone who suddenly decided that my relatively mainstream and inoffensive conservatarian opinions were beyond the pale and injurious to their mental safety. It isn’t the first time that this has happened. This is what identity politics and leftist intolerance hath wrought.

Retreating into our respective bubbles will not help knit society back together and weave the strands of a common identity and shared purpose around which we can – and must – all unite. The Heineken “Worlds Apart” ad acknowledges this fact and pitches its product as part of the solution.

It shouldn’t take a beer company to say what so many political and community leaders have so conspicuously failed to say themselves, but that’s just what Heineken have done with this ad. And this puts it head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Heineken - Worlds Apart ad

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