Saturday, February 20, 2010



You might think that title is a joke. It isn't: I actually saw it printed on a New York City bus.

I thought I had seen everything in advertising. I thought I had cataloged every species of commercial dishonesty. But I should never underestimate commercial speakers: Their innovation knows no bounds. They push the limits every time. And in cases like this, they push straight into the surreal.

What the fuck does Dutch beer have to do with African-American identity and history? How does Heineken in any way relate to the black experience in the United States? How does Heineken reflect this country's poisonous racial legacy, or in any way symbolize it? I have no doubt that many African-Americans like Heineken beer. But would an average black man in America instinctively associate Heineken with black issues?

I can understand associating George Washington Carver, Crispus Attucks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Scott Joplin or even Snoop Dogg with Black History Month. All those men achieved prominence in American life through the decades. But Heineken? Where was Heineken during the Freedom Marches? Where was Heineken during the Civil War and Reconstruction? And where the hell was Heineken during the L.A. race riots?

Heineken is not African-American. It is not even a person. It is a beer. What role could it possibly have played in a Nation's development?

To suggest that blacks should celebrate their history in the United States by breaking open a Heineken is just asinine. After all, it was a Dutch merchant who brought the first African slaves to Virginia in 1619. That's not to say that Heineken reflects modern Dutch views about slavery. But the fact remains that the Dutch played a very dark role in the history of American slavery. In that light, it is especially perverse to suggest blacks should celebrate their history by drinking Dutch beer.

Heineken's ad is not just historically incongruous. It also shows just how little taste--or sense--most advertisers bring to their work. In this case, the advertisers did not ponder the embarrassingly weak connection between African-American history and Heineken beer. No, they merely identified a potential market (i.e., African-Americans), then matched their product to an important month in the "African-American calendar." Perhaps Heineken intended to forge a mental link between "African-American pride" and Heineken. Perhaps they wished to dupe African-Americans into believing that Heineken played a substantial role in their history. Maybe Dr. Dre likes Heineken. Maybe Duke Ellington drank it after his shows in the 1940s. Who knows?

Heineken simply concluded that African-Americans represent a "market:" Namely, a discrete body of potential buyers and sellers at a particular time and place. Any advertising that incites a market to spend money on the advertiser's product is worth the price. It does not matter if the message is crass, off-color, inappropriate, incorrect, counterfactual, counterintuitive, silly, ridiculous or just wrong. Those concerns pale next to the advertiser's mandate to generate profits.

In the end, advertising is not about consistency. It is not about respect, either. Rather, it is about implanting mental connections so that people spend money. In advertising, facts need not be accurate. Indeed, facts are not even necessary at all.

And taste? That's the least concern. If taste mattered, what self-respecting student of American history would dare to assert that Heineken beer has anything to do with the plight of African-Americans in this country? The thought is almost too embarrassing to entertain.

But that didn't stop Heineken from entertaining it. There is no shame--or dignity--in commerce.

That's another reason I'm not good at it. Damned ethics!

1 comment:

Sarah said...

today's motto: anything to make a buck.