Heineken’s New Ad Is A Terrifying Sham — And I’ve Lived It Many Times Over

Expecting the oppressed to change the minds of their oppressors over a beer is preposterous and dangerous.

I was recently about to deliver a talk on findings from my book on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, to a crowded room. Five minutes before I was due to take the stage, a middle-aged white man cornered me.

“I read your book. I disagreed with your chapter on the gender pay gap. Let’s talk about it over lunch,” he said, shoving his business card into my hands, before speedily taking off.

In a blink of an eye, he attempted to undermine my work and take off before I could even gather my thoughts, deliberately cornering me when I wouldn’t be able to respond.

Three minutes later, I got up on stage to talk about — you guessed it — the gender wage gap.

The incident haunted me for days after; I kept playing it over in my mind, wondering how I could have taken better control of the situation. But unfortunately, experiences like this are so common for me, I’ve also learned to take a quick breath and move on—which is exactly what I did that day, when I got up on stage, mostly undeterred.

I wasn’t always so nonchalant. Right before I was headed to my book launch in 2015, I spoke on a panel about the business case for diversity. The panel was remarkably, and extremely unusually, intersectional — we had two men of color, one queer woman, and a trans woman. At the end of the panel, a white guy came up just to me, the only woman of color (though all on the panel had been discussing the topic), and demanded that I prove diversity was a good idea. After 20 minutes of grilling, he let me go, but not without first letting me know that he remained “unconvinced” and “would follow up with me at another time.” He never did. I took a cab across town to my book launch shaken and tearful ahead of one of the proudest moments in my life. Nobody told me talking about corporate gender inequities would incite white male defensiveness that sometimes veers into verbal abuse.

Nobody told me talking about corporate gender inequities would incite white male defensiveness that sometimes veers into verbal abuse.

In the year-and-a-half since that encounter, I’ve learned that it’s always, always incumbent on me, the brown woman, to prove my data, to explain why inequities persist in the workforce, and to provide solutions for how to hire, retain, and promote underrepresented people, to large groups of privileged white (mostly) men and some white women.

And there’s another more insidious lesson I’ve learned; only people who already think this way really listen to what I, and people who look like me, have to say. No matter the depth of data available from the most prestigious institutions in the world, I keep encountering white men who tell me that those stats, and my own lived experiences of inequities, are make believe.

It’s with this lens that I watched Heineken’s new ad, “Worlds Apart,” a promotion that’s been touted as the antidote to a recent, dangerously tone-deaf commercial from Pepsi. In it, three pairs of strangers — an anti-feminist and feminist, a climate change denier and an activist, and an anti-trans cis white man and a trans woman — are brought together, unbeknownst to them, to solve a problem. The problem — to build a bar — drives collaboration and once the bar is built, their views are revealed to the other by video. Each pair is asked whether they want to leave, or whether they’ll stay to share a beer with the person so different from them. What ensues is truly poetic — nobody leaves. There are even laughs and “understanding” neatly shared over, you guessed it, a bottle of Heineken.

But while this might be effective in a commercial, in real life, the premise is ludicrous to the point of being insulting.

Firstly, minds rarely change, and never that quickly. Cognitive science proves that we all suffer from confirmation bias, seeking out information that supports our beliefs while rejecting credible data to the contrary. There’s unshakeable evidence to prove that climate change is real and that more women live in poverty than men, that the gender pay gap exists, and that globally, high numbers of women are at risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other gender-based violence and crime. Yet many persist in believing these facts are invalid, thwarting the advancement of human rights in the process. And alarmingly, there’s an assumption that such disbelief is perfectly valid and acceptable. (The New York Times’ recent op-ed challenging scientifically proven climate change comes to mind as another recent example of this dynamic).

Moreover, it is dangerous to make those whose very livelihoods are at stake have to “prove” their humanity to those who deny it. In the case of trans rights deniers, transgender people are tasked with changing the minds of a privileged group that doesn’t believe in their basic human rights. History has shown, time and again, that even if you grow up breaking bread with people who differ from you, those experiences are rarely enough for you to protect another group’s rights. The more common Eurocentric example comes from people snitching on their Jewish neighbors in Nazi Germany, but hate crimes like these have persisted all over the world.

Transgender people are tasked with changing the minds of a privileged group that doesn’t believe in their basic human rights.

This ad dangerously promotes the idea that safe spaces exist for people to discuss such polarizing views. But consider that in just the first six weeks of 2017 alone, seven trans women have been senselessly murdered. Transgender women of color face acute danger at the hands of cis white men. Can you convincingly tell me that these conversations, without any facilitation, could be productive? To expect a trans woman to have to put herself in a situation where a man with opposing views could literally kill her for it is completely irresponsible.

We’ve seen this play out tragically in other instances, too. Case in point; the homicide of Srinivas Kuchibotla by a white supremacist in Kansas, who wouldn’t listen to reason and actually got angrier as Kuchibotla tried to explain that he and his friend weren’t “Middle Eastern persons.” Eventually Kuchibotla was killed in an unprovoked hate crime, for having — the irony is rich — a beer in the same bar as a white supremacist.

But not everyone who disagrees with you will shoot you, you protest. With the right information, I would be willing to keep an open mind, you add.

Unfortunately, research shows that even armed with facts, we’re unwilling to change our minds. This New Yorker article goes into great depth about confirmation bias, ending with new research revealing that people not only love to stick to their ideals, but that there isn’t really a way to make people see an alternate point of view:

“There must be some way, they maintain, to convince people that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are dangerous. (Another widespread but statistically insupportable belief they’d like to discredit is that owning a gun makes you safer.) But here they encounter the very problems they have enumerated. Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.”

Research even shows that we experience a release of dopamine, the pleasure and reward hormone, when our beliefs are supported.

One of the most telling moments in the Heineken ad comes when, asked whether he would stay for a beer with the trans woman, the anti-trans man first walks away, then walks back into the room, laughing “[I’m] only joking.” She breathes a sigh of relief and laughs nervously. In that moment, the power dynamics are clearly weighted toward the cis white man. Again, the onus is on her to be patient, to try and convince the person with power and privilege that her point of view is valid. That she is worth having a beer with.

That scene broke my heart.

So should the advertising industry steer clear of social justice messages? Recent examples — such as Pepsi’s offering — may have us believing so. But I find that in our social media age, advertising done correctly could provide an effective and impactful platform to highlight social issues. That said, it’s irresponsible to reduce systemic oppression to a “just talk to each other!” message. Without that caveat in place, we’re oversimplifying how deep-rooted biases and beliefs really are and how difficult it can be to overturn them, while ignoring how the onus for change is often put on those whose very humanity is under threat.

One effective advertisement is this one from India. I’ll let you watch it so I don’t give away the ending.

Vicks commercial “Generations of Care,” released for the Indian market

A detergent commercial from India that I previously wrote about is even more effective, as it shows a man recognizing his privilege, and learning how to wield that for much-needed reform of gender norms in India.

My message to Heineken and others who are congratulating the company on this ad is simple: Expecting the oppressed to change the minds of their oppressors over a beer is completely preposterous and even dangerous. If we truly want to effect change, these carefully-facilitated conversations need to happen in a setting where the oppressed are kept physically and emotionally safe. They need to happen consistently over time, with an underlying understanding of how privilege and power dynamics inform every single belief we have.

I wish it were as simple as this ad makes it look to change the minds of those who see some as inhuman. But if it were really so easy to change minds, ask yourself this: Would we now be living in Donald Trump’s America?