I’m always on the lookout for stories that can make me feel optimistic about our capacity to become something better. Counter-narratives to the mean spirited attempts to punish the vulnerable, or blame them for conditions beyond their control. The fact that beer commercials have now become the source of human inspiration is, well, both depressing and oddly intriguing (which emotion you experience may depend on how much you’ve drunk).
My most recent source of inspiration is the latest Heineken commercial in which a series of strangers are brought together with very divergent political beliefs. After expressing on camera (but out of sight of the other participants) their opinions about immigration, climate change, feminism and other equally divisive topics, pairs of individuals who would likely be yelling at each other in minutes are asked to complete a series of tasks, such as building a table and chairs, then a counter. They are also asked to respond to a series of questions which become progressively more personal, helping the participants to get to know each other as individuals with their own backstories and motivations. Then, the two are shown the videos captured before they began the exercise. It all makes for great viewing as we see their reactions to one another. You can practically hear them asking, “How can this lovely person that I just got to know be such an ideological monster, with political views that are completely wrong?” At this point, the two participants are offered a choice. Stay and discuss their differences over a beer or walk off the set and end the experiment. I have no idea how many actual participants walked away but the commercial suggests that most, if not all, stayed and shared a drink together, promoting a level of collective tolerance that in truth, most of us want in our daily lives.
I find it interesting that themes like cooperation and mutual respect have become such marketable ideas that even beer companies are willing to stake their brand on them. This is pretty remarkable given we live in a world where heartlessness and xenophobia seem to be taking root. How the heck can we expect people to demonstrate resilience when the systems that are supposed to support them imperil their lives and livelihoods? If the beer commercials suggest anything, it is that a majority of the population are more open-minded than we’d believe.
Of course, one commercial does not a trend make. So consider the other big beer commercial with a message. The Budweiser commercial that aired during the last Superbowl told the story of an immigrant that comes to America, experiences prejudice and bullying, but goes on to create one of the iconic American brands. I heard through the grapevine that the creative team behind the commercial had begun production of it long before President Trump took power. I also heard that they did consider pulling the add after he was elected, but only for a brief moment. The fact that they ran the commercial is a testament, yet again, to the true nature of the audience watching. Budweiser knew that their audience wants to see themselves as tolerant. Sure, there were a few individuals who called for a boycott, but most people seemed to appreciate the message. Besides, the more controversial the ad, the more likely people are to notice the brand. Is all corporate exposure good exposure? Possibly.
There may also be another reason why international brands like Heineken and Budweiser are impervious to the “hate the vulnerable” turn in politics. Frankly, the American market for beer and many other goods, from cars to IT support, is shrinking rapidly as a percentage of total global consumption as huge middle-classes rise in countries like India, China and Indonesia. As a recent article in The Atlantic showed, that is where market growth is for beer companies too, with Budweiser experiencing huge increases in its overseas sales as demand in the United States stagnates. Ads like the two I just described may be a ploy by corporations to tip their hat at globalization which is in their best interest. Is globalization good or bad? It is difficult to say with certainty whether it makes us collectively more or less resilient. I will argue this though: the more we connect and intertwine our economies, the more we break down travel barriers, and the more we share our cultures, the stronger, more flexible and more resilient humanity will become. We’ll need those traits to cope with the onslaught of environmental challenges that are assaulting us now.
And herein lies the lesson from the beer commercials. Our world is becoming a more globalized, integrated whole. There is no stopping that. Tolerance is necessary if we are all going to survive. Most of us want to get along. We like to disagree, mind you, but very few of us are willing to go to war over a difference of opinion. At least not the regular folks drinking beer in their backyards.
My work on resilience often broaches topics like social justice, human rights, and diversity. It’s interesting to think that beer commercials are doing as much, and maybe more, to spark a discussion about the true nature of our society as my staid academic writings. Darn! And here I thought I was changing the world. Oh well…I’m going to go have a beer. Won’t you join me? I’d love to discuss some ideas I have about world peace.