By now you’ve likely seen and debated the Heinken ad that seems to exist to show Pepsi how social responsibility is done, to show all of us how world peace can be achieved.
You’re not wrong if you’re hearing disdain in there. Maybe you’ve also seen DiDi Delgado’s piece that talks about why this ad sucks.
I agree with Delgado, but I was also totally taken in at first. I want to believe in this ad, in what this ad is trying to sell me (in addition to a cold one). This ad wants me to believe in people’s ability to treat each other with human kindness, wants me to believe when people who have diametrically opposing views are brought together and given the chance to interact one on one, magic will happen. When they face each other in these one-to-one ways, when they see each other as people, the ad assures us, even people with views as extreme as the folks in this ad can see one another’s humanity and treat each other with human kindness and good will. Better still, the ad suggests that this ability to see an individual’s humanity is the secret sauce, the magic elixir that will change how we look at and treat larger groups of people, whole categories of people.
I want to believe that. I truly, kind of desperately want to believe that. And that’s how the ad suckered me. Of course I want to believe that, so of course I liked this ad when I first watched it. It was almost irresistible. Look how those random, opposing-view-holding, nice English people got their acts together and shared a beer! The world can be saved! Praise be!
I liked this ad, but it also made me incredibly uncomfortable. And, ultimately, made me angry.
My issue with the ad isn’t, as one friend suggested, that there aren’t enough “this type against that type” pairings. They’d have had to make far too many of these ads to cover every possible high-profile, opposing-view pairing. As I said to my friend, however, I think they were cowardly to leave out big-ticket items like anti-Semitism and racism, though I get why they didn’t take them on. The number or type of pairings isn’t why this ad is terrible.
Delgado’s excellent point about “putting regressive ideology on equal footing with progressive ideology” is right on the money. The false equivalencies set up in these pairings is awful. The hateful comments of the transphobic and misogynist men are given to us and we’re supposed to see their comments and beliefs as perfectly acceptable, alternative ideas, we’re supposed to see their comments as the same as a) a woman talking about the need for equality and equity and b) a woman simply stating that she exists. There is no equivalence here. Not even a little, tiny one you can only find with a microscope. No.
We’re supposed to set aside our feelings about the hate these men spew because we see that, oh, hey, they seem like nice guys! Sure. They are nice guys … who believe horrible, horrible things and surely make decisions and treat people according to those awful beliefs – how many women have had to deal with that man’s misogyny in their interactions with him at work or when they’ve tried to be in a relationship with him? The prejudices these men reveal aren’t the equivalent of the thoughts expressed by the women they are paired with – the transgender woman isn’t espousing any view at all. She is simply stating who she is and expecting to be able to live her life. There’s no opposing view for this pair, just one prejudiced person paired with the kind of person the are prejudiced against. Not a shred of equivalency there. These two pairings are harmful and ugly.
Harmful and ugly. And there’s the other false equivalence. We’re supposed to see these pairings as equal to the climate change pairing, and they aren’t. The two men with their opposing ideas and beliefs about climate change are giving their opinions about an idea that isn’t about them as people. The misogynist is talking about women, about people, not about a theory or concept or scientific finding. He’s saying he doesn’t believe in the agency, autonomy, or humanity of a whole group of people. The transphobic man is talking about people, not about a theory or concept or scientific finding. He’s saying he doesn’t believe in the existence or the right to existence of a whole group of people. Neither of these positions is in any way like not believing climate science.
The other false equivalence is the pairing of women with men being set up as equal to the two-men pairing. Let’s not pretend it is. Particularly not with the men chosen for the mixed pairs. From the first go, from the second both women duck their heads and let the men move into the space first, those pairs aren’t the same as the climate change pair. And when the drink-or-ditch moment comes, both women step up right away because they are “nice,” and perhaps because of gender-based pressure to be nice. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to be, it’s our role in social situations, particularly those involving men.
And finally we have the big reveal. When that moment comes, yes the climate change guy is surprised by what he hears his build-a-bar partner saying, but he isn’t worried, isn’t afraid. The women are both clearly uncomfortable, and their discomfort seems to come from a place of concern for personal, physical safety. That moment seems especially awful for the trans woman. Who knows how that transphobic man will respond?
And the “joke” the transphobe plays. It makes for good film, but I can’t imagine the pain that joke caused the woman. It only takes a second for that feeling of rejection to hit, that realization that someone who’s been perfectly nice to you is now repulsed by and turning away from you. Heh. Some joke.
And I’m annoyed by the fact that it seems clear who is expected to have the bad reaction and possibly leave in each pair. The person who is (set up to look) intolerant is assumed to be the wildcard, we don’t know what they’ll do. We assume the other person (who is set up to look like the better person) will be open and conciliatory, ready to have conversation, even with someone who’s just been revealed to have problematic, dangerous, hateful opinions. It annoys me because that is always what’s expected. We are supposed to be open minded, see the other side, listen to what the opposition has to say. And while we may often be the person willing to listen, that’s not always the case and also puts pressure on us to have more open-mindedness than other folks, to leave ourselves in potentially-dangerous situations for the sake of being nice, or polite, or reasonable.
So everyone stays and shares some time over beers. It’s a beautiful thing. Of course it is. The climate denier blowhard decides everything’s fine because he can have a drink with a stranger. The misogynist says, “Smash the patriarchy.” The transphobe gets the nice woman to exchange numbers with him — and immediately makes clear that he is taken, so don’t get any ideas.
It’s not hard to believe that people can get along one on one. It’s not surprising or magic. At my old job, I had to moderate a community meeting in which a lot of angry white people stood up and said hateful things about the immigrants who had begun to outnumber them in the neighborhood, but when I saw those same hatemongers on the street, I’d often see them chatting quite pleasantly with their Chinese, Yemeni, Mexican, Bangladeshi, or Palestinian neighbors — in one case, playing sweetly with a neighbor’s children. Them having good relationships with the people they knew individually didn’t stop them from hating the groups of people those individuals were part of. I’ve seen this with people I know saying unbelievably racist things to me … and then assuring me that they don’t think of me that way. Liking me as a person didn’t stop them from hating Black people. It just made them think I was an exception to the rule.
Coke wanted to unite us with song, Pepsi with a reality TV star. Now we get arts and crafts with beer. I am irked by the tied-with-a-nice-bow conclusion this ad presents to us and wants us to believe, the completely unrealistic idea that we’d all get along if we could just sit and share a beer. Never mind that I don’t like beer. My life will not be long enough for all the one-on-one drinks that would be required to affect real change. And I’m annoyed by how much I wanted to believe and so let myself be taken in, no matter how briefly.
I’m also annoyed by how quick folks have been to tell me my criticism is wrong, that I should “be happy” because at least Heineken tried. This is part and parcel of the marinated-in-white-tears complaint that folks should get a pass if they’ve tried, that telling them their attempt hasn’t worked makes it less likely that they will try again because we haven’t given them any credit for their messed up attempt, haven’t given them time to bask in the warm sunshine of our love and praise.
Look. This is life, not everyone-gets-a-hit little league. I have neither the time nor the inclination to pat people on the back when what they’ve done is make a hash of things.
In an attempt to do something good, something clearly much more carefully conceived and executed than the Pepsi ad, Heineken has, instead, put out something patently disturbing and dangerous. Would “greater progress on ideal scenarios” — as someone in my mentions accused me of wanting — be desirable? Of course they would, but I’d be happy with “first do no harm,” and this ad does harm. An entity with worldwide reach put something harmful into the world. And that’s a) a problem, b) fair game for honest criticism, and c) not something to be overlooked simply because we assume the intent was good.
People have also felt the need to tell me how I should respond to this ad, as if the problem isn’t with the ad but with me being too ignorant to understand what I should be seeing when I watch it. As if.
I was told that I should “recognize it for what it is. Be happy it wasn’t just a callous money grab. That they’re at least TRYING to get it right.”
Yes, well, see above about the back-patting and how inclined I am. And, too, do you really not think this was a money grab? Also, no. It’s not acceptable for anyone to be telling me how I should consume or respond to … well … anything. Punto. And really, this harkens back to the anger that flooded my mentions when I had the nerve to admit that folks wearing safety pins didn’t make me feel happy or supported or more safe. As a general rule, when a marginalized person — particularly one from a group that is presumed to benefit from the behavior or change in question — tells you, “Hey, there’s something wrong here, something is making me uncomfortable,” your response shouldn’t be to tell that person to shut up, to tell them how they should be responding, to tell them how very appreciative they should be that someone wanted to do anything for them, no matter how flawed the finished product turned out to be.
It is important for us to acknowledge when folks get things right, when they try to do something productive and helpful. But, if we ever want folks to actually get it right, criticism is necessary . Without criticism, the people who made that ad only hear praise, get to think they did it 100% correctly, that there’s no need for improvement, no need for them to learn how to do this work better. I’m not interested in patting people on the back because their intention was good. I have, in fact, no idea what their intention was, other than to interest me in buying their beer. I can only judge what they’ve shown me, and what they’ve shown me is extremely flawed and troubling.
So no thank you to anyone who wants to tell me how to respond, how to feel. I’ll keep feeling and speaking and responding in the ways that work for me, in the ways that can foster actual change rather than silencing myself because people want to feel good about a beer commercial.
Oh, I fell off the wagon completely on this essay challenge, what? But I’m back, friends. I’m back. I’m miles behind, but I’m determined to catch myself up. Sadly, it seems the world is determined to provide me with things to get pissed off about, so there should be some solid essay fodder in all that mess. Welcome to the ride. ❤