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Heineken’s new ad about political unity tries to succeed where Pepsi failed

Reactions to the “Worlds Apart” ad campaign illustrate why political change takes more than sharing a drink.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The latest attempt by a major beverage company to wade into the turbulent sociopolitical climate through advertising is being met with significantly more praise than Pepsi’s recent botched attempt with Kendall Jenner.

Heineken’s new “Worlds Apart” ad, released April 20, asks a simple but fraught question: Can people on opposite ends of the world’s increasingly polarized ideological spectrum come together to talk about their differences and have a beer? The ad has won significant praise from many viewers and members of the media who argue its model for encouraging open-minded discussion can work in daily life.

But is the ad really delivering on a promise to effectively unite people?

The ad attempts to build trust between strangers before revealing their ideological opposition

In the ad, created by a London publicist, Heineken conducts a simple experiment: It brings several pairs of complete strangers together and has them follow instructions to build a bar while talking to each other about themselves. Once they complete the bar, Heineken reveals their pre-taped ideological oppositions, and offers them a choice — they can leave, or stay at the bar and talk about their different beliefs over a Heineken.

Unsurprisingly, the members of each pairing in the ad, which include a transphobic patriot and a transgender former soldier; a climate change denier and an environmentalist; and a feminist and a misogynistic member of “the new right,” all decide to stay and discuss their differences. Though what we see of the conversations is largely inconclusive — and it’s important to note here that we have no idea how many pairs of strangers Heineken filmed, or how much editing they did, to achieve the desired effect — the ad seems to result in the transphobic man embracing the gender identity of the trans woman he’s just met.

The ad has generally been well received. But those who’ve criticized it raise important points.

The media has been effusive in its praise for the Heineken ad, consistently billing it as “the antidoteto the Pepsi ad. The public also overwhelmingly seems to have responded with positivity, clinging to the idea it shows how political divides can be bridged by simply sharing experiences with one another.

But not everyone is on board the hype train — particularly actual members of the alt-right and some progressive communities.

“Beware that Heineken Ad,” wrote one member of Reddit’s alt-right stronghold r/The_Donald. “Liberals ALWAYS do this.” The user complained that the conservative men in the video had to sacrifice their version of “truth” in order for the “dialogue” to proceed.

we do not need to concede that the transgendered person is a woman when he is biologically born a man. We do not need to be able to joke about the patriarchy in order to discus sociological norms. This for the same reason that we do not expect our interlocutors to concede that Trump is God Emperor (he is), we expect to show them this through reason and sound argument. Do not grant the conclusions that your opponent would like to draw at the beginning of your "dialogue" because it's "nice." What's nice is teaching them the goddamn truth.

This response largely serves to bolster the similar points that feminists and transgender rights activists have made in response to the ad — namely that its progressives were also asked to make concessions, in this case by considering opposing political viewpoints that dehumanize them and threaten their basic safety.

Criticism from the alt-right throughout Reddit has seemed to center on the transgender woman featured in the video, and the decision of her experiment partner to eventually embrace her identity. Their resistance to the transwoman’s description of her own gender identity isn’t just token protest; it’s a dangerous rhetoric that leads to staggeringly high rates of violence against transgender individuals.

Not all responses to the ad have been so extreme. “I wish mainstream media or normal/center people would stop presenting the alt-right and feminists as ‘both sides,’” ran a typical, more measured Reddit response. “The sexism and racism of the alt right is nothing like the (admittedly, sometimes overzealous) belief in and support for equality from feminists.”

Ultimately, while the Heineken ad may have scored one for capitalism, its point is ineffective against the larger systemic change needed to really put people from different social and economic groups on equal footing. Beginning to solve the systemic problems that contribute to such strong ideological opposition will take far more than sharing a beer.