Courting Controversy

A few major brands have waded into some controversial waters lately, leveraging our current national discord in order to send what is hoped to be a positive message. The results have been all over the map. Here are three recent examples:

    1. Budweiser, Born the Hard Way”

Described as “the story of our founder’s ambitious journey to America in pursuit of his dream: to brew the King of Beers,” this cinematic Super Bowl commercial drew criticism from certain folks for a perceived pro-immigrant bias, especially given that it was released around the same time the president issued an executive order regarding immigration. The hashtag #boycottbudwiser (sic) started circulating before the commercial even aired.

However, as Mashable notes the boycott largely failed, in that “The boycotters … missed the larger historical context of the Budweiser ad.”

 

      1. Pepsi, “Live For Now”

      What can be said about this ad that hasn’t already been said? Pepsi and Jenner were raked over the coals by, well, everyone, including SNL:

      The biggest complaint was that ad was tone-deaf in how it co-opped imagery from Black Lives Matter and other earnest political movements. The thinking that beautiful people drinking sugary beverages will solve the world’s problems is also flawed. In any event, “Live For Now” didn’t live for long. Pepsi wisely yanked the ad a day after its release.

  1. 3. Heineken, “Worlds Apart”

OK, so, if we take the lessons learned from both Budweiser and Pepsi, the message seems to be: Stay away from topical material to avoid ridicule and boycotts. But then along comes Heineken with this ad that takes a huge risk and somehow manages to pull it off.

Writing for The A.V. Club,Gwen Ihnat notes that by using real people, as opposed to models and actors, Heineken “very simply and succinctly accomplishes what Jenner and all those hundreds of Pepsi street-activist extras could not.”

Heineken’s strategy isn’t exactly new, argues Sarah Rense in this piece by Esquire: “It uses the reliable trope of Real People seeing something and/or someone for the first time, and then having their minds changed, mixed with a healthy dose of social awareness.” Rense also notes that, in the wake of the Pepsi debacle, Heineken had a low bar to clear: “By itself, it’s just an ad meant to sell a thing. But compared to the Pepsi ad, it deserves a Cannes Lion. Makes you smile a bit, too.”

Tapping into a nation’s divisions to sell fizzy beverages isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. Coke may have done it first with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” way back in 1971.

Horribly cheesy? Yes. A cynical attempt to use flower children to sell soda? Yeah, probably. Offensive? Well, I didn’t see anyone in riot gear, so not really. Actually, the jingle was so successful that it was reworked into a full length song and became a hit on the Billboard charts.

I’m going to end this by recalling an earlier BEC post from 2016 regarding ethics in marketing.

In that post, we outlined a few steps on how to be ethical in marketing: Do the research, Be objective, Be the good, and Get better. We can also cull one other lesson in marketing the Heineken ad: Take the time to get it right. This is doubly true if you’re using a societal issue to spread specific message.

 

John Swinconeck