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Heineken crisis brewing—brand’s ad panned for ‘racist’ messages

by | Apr 13, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

Occasionally, consumer PR and the Law of Unintended Consequences run headlong into each other. A brand that doesn’t mean to offend or create a public relations incident still manages to get attention for all the wrong reasons. Just ask Heineken.

The beer company is loved by millions on at least two continents, and it’s also known for advertising that bucks the trend of advertising beer with either massive amounts of machismo or heartstring tugging bits with puppies and other cute creatures. Heineken is often presented at parties, with sophisticated young adults having a relatively muted good time. Or it’s hawked by straight-faced actors, presenting the bottle front and center.

Recently, though, Heineken was under fire for an ad that ends with the tagline “sometimes lighter is better…”

Racist or misinterpreted?

Now, if you’ve been following the beer wars as of late, you get the joke without even having it explained. Craft brews and darker beers are all the rage, and tens of millions of Millennials are eschewing lighter beers, except when in the mood for a sense of irony. Wine is also catching beer in sales, especially among younger cohorts. That meant falling sales for Heineken. The brand had to do something to catch up and get back in the pop culture conversation.

Then, there’s the fact that the market for “light” beers—that is light in calories, not color—is very crowded. Heineken has a light beer, but it tends not to have too much of the light beer market, especially in the States, as compared to Miller and Budweiser. So, for Heineken, the ad was not only to remind customers about their brand in general, but to stake a claim on some of the light beer market as well.

This ad was clearly an attempt to do both… but it didn’t land well

In the ad, a bartender notices a woman at the end of the bar drinking a glass of wine. He slides a bottle of Heineken Light down the bar to her. As the bottle makes its way, it passes several darker-skinned people, some walking by, some playing guitar none really paying much attention to the beer. The woman who finally receives the beer is lighter-skinned than some of the other people in the commercial… and that fact didn’t land well with certain people with a very public profile.

One of the people who were not pleased was Chance The Rapper, who decried the advert as “terribly racist” before calling out Heineken to his myriad fans on social media. Others joined the outcry, motivating Heineken to pull the ad.

A spokesman for the company released this statement:

“While we feel the ad is referencing our Heineken Light beer, and that light beer is better than other high-calorie options—we missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns…”

Some are not buying the apology, saying the company was simply trying to be “edgy” to get attention.

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian founded 5WPR, a leading PR agency..

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