Why The Heineken Ad Gives Me The Creeps

It’s not that different to the Pepsi ad.

It feels lonely to go against the lavish tons of praise but I must say that after reading the accolades for the “Worlds Apart” Heineken ad that’s supposed to be the antidote to the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, and then watching it, I was left feeling rather disturbed.

I think the Heineken ad suffers from the same believability problem as the Pepsi ad, which has to do with slurping far more than a beverage can swallow in terms of making the world a better place. True, there is a bit more relevance to talking things over a beer than bringing Pepsi to a demonstration to chill the police out, but such pre-packaged bridging of the ideological/gender/social divide over a beer is still a stretch, particularly since beer could just as easily provoke an epic barroom brawl. It has been known to happen.

My beef with the Heineken concept is that it manipulates the participants in a really creepy way. Is this kind of social engineering the province of a beer? I cannot think of anything more tonally dissonant than beer and a morbid sociological experiment, with industrial-Orwellian vibe included. Heineken, a generic product with a rather indistinct personality, all of a sudden reminds me of The Stanford Prison Experiment. Even though it is undeniably powerful, this ad does not compel me to choose Heineken the next time I want a beer. Quite the contrary. It makes me think they forgot who they are and were seized by a solemn pretentiousness that has little to do with the desire for the refreshing, simple pleasures of an ice-cold beer.

A colleague of mine disagreed with my complaint by saying that all advertising is manipulative. I beg to differ. There are many excellent ads out there that simply tell a great story well. VW’s “The Force” comes to mind; a quirky, hilarious story that obliquely makes a case about the perceived awesome power of this car. Great storytelling is not overtly manipulative, it summons our emotions through genuine insight into human nature.

The Heineken commercial aims to do this, but in such an obviously stage- managed way that I distrust it. I have so many questions: how were these people chosen, are they really non-professionals, what were they paid, what were they told would happen, are they aware they are being filmed, were they coached to react in certain ways? People have gotten so used to the fakery of reality shows that no one seems to mind. But it is exactly the same faked result, a hybrid that has little to do with either truth or reality, but which pretends to. Sometimes, using actors and making up a fictional story is more authentic than trying to futz with real people. What’s more, the transparent whiff of marketers huddling with their ideas about the zeitgeist that we gleefully imagined went on in the Pepsi brainstorms is somehow made literal in this case by actually showing an experiment conducted on people. Eew. Plus, I’m super tired of brands that preach.

My unease comes from the manipulation of the participants. They are asked to build what turns out to be a bar, which is both literal and ridiculous, with a perfect stranger. Of course, being forced to collaborate, they miraculously hit it off. They all happen to play well together, which anybody who has ever worked with another human being knows is nothing short of an achievement. We don’t know if there was any tension or discomfort in the effort, because if there was, it remains off-screen. The audience already knows these people’s ideology. Then comes the reveal. The poor subjects are made to listen to these revelations together, like guinea pigs in a lab, as we observe their stunned reactions and feel smug about how tolerant and inclusive we are. EEW.

Then lo and behold, they are given a choice, and they all decide to talk things over and patch things up with a beer. And voilá, apparently we just need to open the cooler IN THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD with nothing but Heinekens inside to bring wannabe nazis and Black feminists together. Puhleeze.

It’s really hard to buy. Had the Pepsi spot never existed, I doubt people would think the Heineken ad is God’s gift to advertising. The comparison between the two is spurious, and in my view, a triumph of Heineken’s P.R. agency, which must have flooded the media and elicited a typical knee-jerk reaction of the sort the internet is good at getting from an increasingly reactive audience. It seems as manufactured for click bait as the ads themselves, both of them as contrived as can be.

Now, if Heineken ends up selling a gazillion cases of beer as a result, hats off to them. That means they did their job, advertising works, and we’re a bunch of suckers.

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