What Heineken’s New Ad Gets Wrong About Bridging Political Divides

The Dutch lagermeisters of Heineken International have put out a new ad for their ubiquitously popular beer — and thank god that they have, too. Neil Patrick Harris may be a national treasure, but if I have to watch him try to hypnotize me during the NBA playoffs one more time, I might put my head through the TV. The new commercial, which explicitly deals with political polarization and the divides it’s gouging in societies around the world, is being hailed as a much-needed antithesis to Pepsi’s earlier debacle of a protest-themed ad, and with five millions views and counting, is well on its way to full-blown virality.

It’s not hard to see why.

The setup of the ad is simple: there are three separate pairs of strangers with diametrically opposed views on a specific subject, but who don’t know that about each other yet. They’re instructed to work together to build a piece of furniture in a warehouse, which eventually turns out to be a bar, all the while undergoing a series of standard icebreakers to get to know each other better (describe yourself in five adjectives, what are three things we have in common, so on). After finishing the bar, a container opens to reveal two beers, and a video is projected that shows each of the two expressing a belief antithetical to the other’s. Afterwards, they’re given a choice: leave the warehouse, no questions asked, or crack open a cold one and talk it out.

All three pairs choose to stay and talk. Kumbaya.

Maybe it’s a bit on the nose, but it makes for an effective ad, especially for its usage of “real people” instead of casting a pretty socialite against a backdrop of imagery evoking recent protests against racial inequality. Even for something that’s clearly staged and is trying to push a product, there’s an aura of authenticity to the ad that Pepsi’s sorely lacked, with a clearly stated message. People are deeply divided, often with very good reason, and if these divisions aren’t widening in the age of Brexit and Trump and Le Pen, then they’re certainly becoming more entrenched. If the gaps are going to be bridged, people on the opposite sides need to talk to each other, and more importantly, listen to each other. It’s only possible to do that in the absence of the supposition that everyone on the other side is a monstrous shitheel who isn’t worth the time, effort, or basic human consideration to have such a discussion.

And hey, if that conversation just so happens to take place over an emerald bottle of crispy cold Heineken, well… so much the better for everyone, eh?

So yeah, it’s a good ad, especially when you stack it against its recent competition in the politically minded beverage advertisement space (no disrespect to Kendall Jenner, but casting her as the tip of any social justice spear is not a great look). But when you stop to think about it after the final frame, I’m not quite sure it’s good enough. And that’s more a function of the specific topics the ad invokes as its touchstone issues, than it is for its endorsed method of addressing them.

The three pairs of people in the ad are divided on feminism, climate change, and transgender rights. The first discussion is between a man who describes himself as a member of the “new right” who declares that modern feminism is little more than a smokescreen for misandry and that men need women to “have our children,” and a card-carrying feminist who identifies as a leftist, replete with a t-shirt signifying her intentions to “smash the patriarchy.” The second is between an adamant climate change denier who believes that environmentalists need to find “real” problems to solve, and an equally adamant green activist who doesn’t think countries are doing enough to combat climate change. The last is between a man who believes that all people are the gender (male or female only, of course) that they were assigned at birth, and an advocate for transgender rights who herself is a transgender woman.

In other words, these discussions are on an intrinsically uneven footing.

You can make the case that the debate over climate change, insofar as it can even be considered a debate anymore, is a fairly innocuous topic for a standard bar tiff. In fact, I will make that case, just as I would that there are a number of political differences that are worth talking out than drawing lines in the sand over. Unless the climate change denier in question happens to be a billionaire industrialist or a politician in the back pocket of one, there’s really not much the average citizen can do to slow, stop, or reverse it.

It’s much harder to make that case when the issue at hand is either women’s or trans rights, especially when the person arguing in favor of them belongs to the disadvantaged community in question and the person arguing against them is not. There’s something wrong when issues of civil rights are treated as trifling political differences in much the same way that gun control or tax policy might be. And it’s troubling to see the ad almost universally hailed as an ode to political civility between opposing sides, when two of its issues are less traditional political footballs and more fundamentally pressing issues of people trying to grasp equality and personal agency in the face of those who would otherwise deny them. The man who thinks modern feminists only hate men, the man who thinks climate change is a hoax, the man who thinks that the very existence of transgender people transcends (heh, prefix humor) the capacity of human understanding — none of these men have much skin in these discussions, not nearly as much as their opposite numbers do.

Let’s say the disciple of the “new right” chose to walk away from the bar, or had his opinions about feminists rejected outright by his sparring partner or by society en masse. What does he really stand to lose? Whether he’s capable of recognizing it or not, he goes back out into a world that has made it harder to be a woman than a man in almost every arena that matters for years. Should the worst of climate change come to pass, it’s not going to matter if the climate change denier believes in it or not — he, and everyone else, will suffer just the same, with the obvious exception of people whose lives and livelihood are more closely tied to rising sea levels. If the man who can’t (or won’t) accept transgender people walks away or is rejected, his gender identity still isn’t one that will be treated as emblematic of mental illness or a predilection towards child molestation. He won’t be targeted by government legislation or borderline-theocratic politicians.

If any of these three men want to advance their beliefs in the world, they don’t have to do anything but let the world be as it is, as it has been for countless years. Feminist movements have been in motion for centuries, yet all the marches, protests, and pussy hats in the world haven’t changed the fact that it’s still very much a man’s world, whatever the trollier-than-thou subreddits and image boards of the internet might tell you. Activists have been hugging trees for decades only for the effects of climate change to accelerate even more, yet environmental regulations are being rolled back left and right in the name of greater economic opportunity. And even when you set aside bathroom bills, Hollywood casting, apocalyptic religious puffery, or the buffoonery of the Mike Huckabees and Curt Schillings of the world, transgender people are straight up dying. Proportionate to the overall population, a lot.

For the people on the other side of these issues, for whom these aren’t mere political opinions but issues that directly affect their lives, these aren’t things that can be changed by civil discussion and raising a glass at a bar. It’s a nice sentiment, and the underlying message of earnest attempts at reconciliation is an important component to any lasting social change. But in and of itself, that doesn’t come close to changing anything.

The feminist woman will still live in a world where her sexuality, her bodily autonomy, and her professional life can be kicked around by the whims of men; if anything, the fact that her opponent genuinely believes that feminism is misandry bolsters her claim that her fight is probably one that’ll go on forever. The green activist will still have to move heaven and earth to get companies and governments to play ball in fighting climate change, and he’ll have to do it knowing that any progress made is only ever an election away from getting rolled back. And the transgender woman? She’s literally just trying to live, maybe take a shit in peace when she has to use a public bathroom, if it’s not too much trouble. All three of them are on a fundamentally unbalanced playing field when it comes to their beliefs, and it’s not only disingenuous to suggest that they or any other activist can achieve their ends simply by turning on the charm and talking it out— it’s unfair. Trying to go high when “they” go low has been an M.O. for activists for years; remind me, how did that end up again?

The ad invokes specific issues, but ultimately the only value judgment it makes is that it positions talking it out as the “right” thing to do; you barely see anything of the debates once they start. But let’s say that the people on the “left” side of the bar, for a standard political sense of direction, decided to leave. Could you really blame them? There are certainly overzealous and unnecessarily histrionic feminists, and plenty of them on the Internet, but it almost takes a concerted effort of deliberate miseducation to get oneself to believe that modern feminism is a front for misandry. Having questions about the scientific method informing climate change is one thing, having questions about the proposed methods to cut emissions or reliance on traditional energy sources is another, but with the bevy of information at our fingertips in 2017, you again to have to put in work to solidify the belief that the phenomenon is “total piffle.” And the inherent injustice of having to justify the tenets of your very existence to someone who thinks that it’s “not right” speaks for itself — the transgender woman isn’t making a political argument. She’s simply saying who she is to someone who can’t bring themselves to accept her existence.

Yet somehow, that’s treated as something that needs to be debated or discussed. The moment when the anti-trans man pretends to leave only to come back and talk is played for laughs, but somehow I feel that moment rings a little too true for transgender people who’ve found themselves abandoned the moment they reveal that about themselves. The fact that she doesn’t leave is a testament to a graciousness I’m not sure many people possess, myself included.

It would have been easy for the ad to caricature the “anti-” crowd, and to its credit, it doesn’t do that. The anti-feminist is shown to be helpful and quite effusive with praise, and reveals that he’s struggled with homelessness and poverty before — a past that likely makes him more resistant to any invocations of his intrinsic “privilege.” The man who’s anti-trans considers himself a very “solemn” person who admits that his worldview is sheltered, and expresses a deep respect for his trans counterpart when she reveals that she’s a military veteran. The climate change denier admits that he can be offensive and abrasive, and reveals that more than anything he wants a sparring partner who won’t dismiss him out of hand but will talk to him and give as good as they get. Heineken’s ad doesn’t so much humanize these men as it refuses to allow their humanity be subsumed within their expressed beliefs and the reactions such beliefs might spark in their fellow test subjects or a viewer.

And that, in and of itself, is an important message to get across. There are people who could generally be considered “deplorables,” whose odiousness in certain regards permeates most of the other aspects of their life and how they treat other people — probably way more than some people are prepared to understand or admit. But just so, there are people whose supposedly distasteful beliefs that aren’t a function of malice, but one of experience or ignorance — again, probably way more than some people are prepared to understand or admit. And far from being irredeemable, the latter group of people can be reached, but it’s only if they’re met with an open palm instead of a closed fist. Take it from a former Islamo- and homophobe, albeit one who’d grown out of both by his freshman year of high school; most people can’t be shamed, bullied, or called out into changing their beliefs or behavior. Going in guns blazing tends to cause people to dig in their heels, and if your aim is to win over those who can be won over, you’re going to have to use a dash of finesse.

The problem is, especially in the age of Trump, it can be really hard to tell the difference. To sort out the misguided from the malicious, to suss out the ignorant from the inimical. If you do it enough times, after a certain point, it isn’t just exhausting to be on the front lines against intolerance. It can be dangerous.

Story time!

I’ve regaled this particular tale in detail multiple times in the past year, and much more often after the election locked America into the darkest timeline for the foreseeable future. But once more for posterity, I was in attendance at the infamous Trump rally in Chicago last spring. You know, the one that was cancelled when the Chicago police advised the Trump campaign to call it off (they didn’t) because they couldn’t guarantee its security (they could), the one where a veritable army of multicultural activists prevented him from taking the stage (he didn’t even show up) and infringed on his 1st Amendment rights (he was on national television whining about it minutes later), the one with its own Wikipedia page treating it like a battle in some forgotten war?

Yup, that one. I was there. Not as a protester, but as an inside attendee with a ticket and everything. As someone who by that point was both horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency and certain that it would never happen (haha), I was much more interested in witnessing the spectacle with my own eyes and trying to get a handle on the kind of people who were supporting him. If the NBC reporter who picked me out of line for an impromptu interview that never aired was any indication, it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t a true believer, and as such, I was incredibly cagey about which Trump supporters I’d engage, given their documented penchant for sucker-punching black attendees. I’m decent in a fight, but I can’t take on a whole stadium alone.

And yeah, a lot of what I saw was what you might expect. Signs and shirts with President Obama in a turban or comparing Michelle Obama to an ape. Gadsden and Confederate flags galore. Salmon-shorted fraternity brothers, ripped straight from the pages of a J. Crew catalog, leading a quite literal charge against anyone resembling a protester or dissembler. “Build the wall” being shouted at a man in a Mexican soccer jersey. Truly, a sterling portrait of Americana.

But aside from the standard portrait of a Trump supporter and other anthropological observers, I met other people who defied easy caricatures. The young white woman who was repulsed by much of Trump’s rhetoric but was tentatively supporting him in the belief that he’d stimulate the economy and help her get a job to support her family, who later lent her phone charger to a Latina teen wearing a vocally anti-Trump t-shirt before excitedly trading stories about upcoming iPhone upgrades. The man vocally disgusted with substantiated corruption in both parties who was oscillating between supporting Trump and Bernie Sanders as outsiders who could blow it up. The person who stood out to me the most was the elderly man who was standing behind me in line to get into the UIC Pavilion. After his wife kindly pointed out that my shoe was untied, as one of them almost always is, I felt emboldened to ask them why they were supporting the mogul. The woman deferred to her husband, who explained that he was a military veteran who’d struggled paying for adequate health care and receiving benefits under the VA to cover injuries he’d suffered during his service, and that Trump was the candidate he’d seen be the most vocal about taking care of veterans.

You’ve got to be a special kind of cold to hate a man for that.

Assuming that these people all stayed the course through to election day and voted for Trump, I’ll never agree with or excuse the decision, a sentiment that has only deepened with every passing day of his administration. And there’ll probably always be a kernel of resentment for how his anti-______ rhetoric could be waved away by voters if they weren’t personally targeted. But when people argue over whether all of Trump’s voters were malicious bigots or disaffected patriots, these are the people that come to mind, the people who I think could be won back in a future midterm or presidential campaign. The people who if I saw in a bar, knowing what I knew about them, I think I could stand to sit and have a drink with, and maybe, just maybe, find some common ground.

But then I remember the people who considered Black Lives Matters a domestic terrorist organization, or applauded Trump for saying that he’d be looking into ways to “get rid of” Muslims. I look at the data breakdowns of reddit’s premier haven for Trump’s supporters and exit polling for Republican voters that gives the lie to the notion that economic anxiety from the white working class eclipsed racial resentment as a political motivation. I look at the violence against marginalized communities all over the country spiking in the wake of his ascendancy, and how it’s either been ignored or excused by the administration. And I waver.

Can you honestly say that someone who’s had a target painted on their back by Trump and his sycophants, with the veritable tomes of his misdeeds available for anyone who cares to look, owes a discussion to his supporters at this point? A woman in a hijab getting harassed at the store, a black protester getting punched at a rally, a Jewish family getting tagged, a Mexican student getting bullied in school? Can you really begrudge them for not wanting to play ball with the people who supported a man trying to do exactly what he said he’d do to them?

The obvious counterargument, of course, is that somebody has to. And maybe that’s the message that the Heinekeneers are trying to get across — that while you, personally, don’t have an obligation to engage your ideological opponent on the battlefield of ideas, someone will have to at some point, especially if your idea is one that’s on the outs at the moment. If everyone passes the buck and kicks the can down the road, nothing will change or get done, and then the God-Emperor wins another term before passing the throne to Ivanka, and ain’t nobody got time for that. It’s part and parcel of being part of a societal outgroup, be that a matter of race or gender or religion; eventually, someone’s gotta bite the bullet and risk taking one for the team (in the States, we now call these people elected Democratic officials).

But what gets lost a lot in the discussion we’re having about the discussions we need to have is something Hillary Clinton said with questionable articulation and almost comically poor timing during the campaign — not everyone’s worth it. That’s not a polite sentiment, but as un-American and pessimistic as that might sound, not everyone’s worth it, and there’s no amount of glad-handing or beers or that will ever bridge the gap. Take a dip in the reddit cesspool that is The Donald for a pipin’ lukewarm take on this commercial that demonstrates just that. That doesn’t mean you go out of your way to hurt those people or screw them over or lock them out of badly needed societal reforms, but there are some people who are going to be ____-ist or ____-ic until the day they die. It doesn’t matter how kindly you treat them, it doesn’t matter how earnestly you engage, it doesn’t matter how flawless your tactics are on the battlefield of ideas; in engaging them at all, you’ve already lost. And if you’re the subject of their ire, you don’t owe them anything. It’d be quite nice if you did, but you don’t owe them a damn thing.

Because sometimes, the metaphorical bullet you’d be taking becomes all too real.

Sometimes, you should crack open the beer and talk. Sometimes, you should crack open the beer but talk about literally anything else. Sometimes, you should walk away from the bar. And sometimes, you should run away from the bar before you or your opposite number attempts to smash the beer against the other person’s head.

How do you tell the difference? How do you parse out the people who’ve been conned and the people who don’t care? How do you figure out who’s lashing out because of pain they’ve suffered and those who simply want to cause pain vindictively? How do you decide who can be reasoned with and shown the light as you see it, and those who you lost the day you were born? How do you determine what people will even be receptive to you trying, and those who’ll begrudge you for every breath you take and move you make?

I don’t have answers, and this is going to be the second consecutive post that I end without anything resembling an authoritative conclusion. I don’t like that, but it’s a thorny topic, especially with the country working itself back into a lather over the somehow still-relevant Ann Coulter and the opposition to her appearance at Berkeley.

Maybe this warrants further conversation and consideration. Maybe that, more than anything else, is the point. I don’t know.

…anybody up for a beer? I’ll buy, but no Heineken. I’m partial to Guinness and Stella, myself.

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