Did Heineken really do what Pepsi couldn't?
Over the past few days, I've seen this new Heineken commercial pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds dozens of times. I follow a large group of people with relatively diverse viewpoints, especially on Twitter, so normally when something like this goes viral I expect to see some debate. But with this, at least at first, all responses seemed to be positive. People were especially relieved that Heineken hadn't appeared to make a mockery of recent protests movements, a la Pepsi a few weeks earlier.
If you haven't seen the Heineken ad, you can watch it here. It starts with videos of several individuals describing their personal views about things like feminism and climate change. It's clear from the start that there's a lot of disagreement, and Heineken decides to see what will happen if they put the people with the most divergent views in a warehouse together, two at a time, before they know anything about each other, to build a bar. Spoiler alert: it goes really well. Everyone is patient and kind and, when given the choice after learning each other's personal views, they each decide to hang around with their would-be adversary for a beer. Ahh, empathy and a cold beer save the day again!
Except... the ad left me with an uneasy feeling. There is, of course, the fact that this is clearly a marketing stunt. That tends to suck much of the earnestness out of most commercials like this. But I also tried to imagine myself in the position of one of the people in this commercial - the black feminist or the transgender woman, especially - and considered whether I would have stayed for that beer. And if I did make that choice, whether it would have really felt like a choice at all.
I'm reminded of a situation I had at work a few years ago. A coworker and I had an argument in which he made me feel belittled and mocked, and then posted about the exchange on his own Facebook wall. Though he didn't name me, he used some really... unfriendly language. A couple of days later, he asked me to have coffee with him to talk things over. I felt a bit trapped. He was older than me, had been at the company longer, and - yes, this mattered for various reasons - a man. I felt pressured to say yes, but I couldn't imagine feeling comfortable sitting across from someone who had just acted so unkindly and, frankly, immaturely toward me. I have a bit of social anxiety as it is, but with all of the other context, I decided I didn't want or need to accept the invitation. I told him how he'd made me feel, and that we could consider things settled, but no, I would not like to get coffee with him. He was disappointed, but handled it relatively well, and eventually it blew over.
This week, I wondered how my choice would have been received by the masses if it had been part of a campaign like Heineken's. And I wondered whether the black woman or transgender woman, who had every reason to feel both uncomfortable and unsafe with their counterparts in Heineken's experiment once they learned their views, really felt they had a choice. I wasn't face to face with my coworker when we had our altercation, and I had time to think about what made the most sense for me when it came to seeing him one on one. And admittedly, not much was at stake for me, aside from a panic attack. But watching this commercial, I thought about the fear that other women, especially the most marginalized women, feel on a regular basis, let alone by themselves in a warehouse with someone who, they've just learned, doesn't approve of their existence.
Because that, I think, is what Heineken misses in this commercial. There are many levels of disagreement. There are many kinds of confusion, misunderstanding, and debate. It makes a lot of sense to rely on empathy to help us get through these things. But when the point of disagreement is another person's being - their humanity, what makes them who they are - is it really fair to ask them to debate it over a beer? Is it really the same to ask a "new right" anti-feminist to empathize with a black feminist as it is to ask the reverse? Is asking a climate change believer and non-believer to sit down and hash it out the same as asking a transgender woman to hang out with a guy who thinks she is wrong for being who she is, all things considered?
I think it's good that the power of empathy is getting so much attention, even from marketers. But I think it's worth thinking critically about what this really means at the personal level. It's great to get people talking, but it doesn't always make sense to pretend like we're all starting from the same place. (I've written about this a little bit before, in December.) So, in the interest of understanding varying points of view, in addition to reading the above-linked story (in the first paragraph) about how Heineken achieved what Pepsi couldn't, I recommend reading this piece, which argues the opposite.