Hey Pepsi, Here’s How It’s Done. Heineken Takes On Our Differences, and Nails It

Putting realities over production values

A feminist and a dude who feels awfully oppressed walk into a warehouse…

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s actually the setup for Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” experiment. Created by Publicis London, it’s being billed as the antidote to Pepsi’s obtusely pop-candy take on our messy political reality.

Instead of positioning resistance as the new Coachella, Heineken takes a more measured approach. Ahead of the operation, it filmed six people stating strongly held beliefs—that men are oppressed, that the fight for feminism is far from over; that climate change is real or “piffle”; that transgender people need a voice; that “transgender” is nonsense semantics.

Those unwitting candidates were then paired with their opposites and sent together into warehouses, where they found themselves with some instructions and a piece of furniture to build. Guess what it is?

Yes—it’s a bar! Upon which to pose two beers.

Following Brexit and the American elections—and in the wake of French elections, where protectionist candidate Marine Le Pen is now a serious contender against a young man who literally invented a party—we’re not only more divided but more entrenched within our bubbles. There’s no longer really much reason to leave them.

This has obviously led to a lot of advertising geared toward bringing us closer together. Ben & Jerry’s comes to mind, with its parable of an oppressed cherry in a land of enraged lemons. One moving Danish ad resembled Heineken’s approach, asking people with vast differences to participate in a unity experiment against an intentionally banal backdrop. And then there was Pepsi.

Heineken, though, tears a page out of Refinery29’s playbook—the lifestyle site that, earlier this year, tried uniting politically polarized voters over beers.

Among other things, our paired bar-builders must ask each other questions and share adjectives that describe themselves. It feels a lot like those four-minute stare ads that brands were previously so fond of. But there’s something nice about being thrown into a weird situation, and forced to get to know someone in ways that have nothing to do with politics. You learn personal histories, other values that bond you, and that you can even like someone who embodies what you hate or fear.

Once the bar is built, and the Heineken beers discovered, the participants are asked to watch a short film. It’s the stuff of nightmares—footage of them, passionate and mouthy and now out-of-context, expressing those polarizing political views they haven’t quite had the chance to reveal to the other.

Keeping our politics in our pockets isn’t a lie, per se, but we like to make critical revelations in our own time. The interesting thing about the world we’re living in now is that people often lead with it, so they immediately know who to stay the hell away from. Our friends here didn’t get the chance—so in terms of discomfort level, we’d compare it to that one time evil Jafar revealed to Princess Jasmine that Prince Ali was just poor, cruddy Aladdin.

Suddenly, that warehouse feels awfully cramped.

But our guinea pigs are given a choice: Sit and discuss their differences over a beer, or just leave. In one fraught moment, the anti-transgender chap immediately walks off, as his companion slowly begins to sit. It’s excruciating!

Then he comes back. “I’m only joking,” he says earnestly, and immediately sits.

In fact, everyone does! The forgiveness—the immediate acceptance in the room—is palpable.

And it isn’t just the people in the ad who are momentarily absolved of their incompatible beliefs. Watching it, we are too. Better still, Heineken doesn’t break the moment by ending with some kind of trite tagline (the title, “Worlds Apart – #OpenYourWorld,” does that fine). It simply ends there, with new friends exchanging numbers and clinking beers.

Say what you like about the self-conscious way brands approach these “experimental” scenarios. They often serve to illuminate the people involved, dramatizing how quickly we adapt and would rather maintain a connection once made, even if it’s outside our bounds of comfort.

When Pepsi took on our differences, it brought us production value, storytelling and glamour—all that stuff Pepsi (and Heineken) is good at. So there’s a kind of respect in stripping things down and simply creating an environment that cultivates our natural inclinations—not just to distinguish ourselves but to unify. It feels less like creepy money guys on high, fetishizing what matters to us.

Of course, the marketing message isn’t lost, either: If we can no longer bring ourselves to so much as listen to people unlike ourselves, it’s probably time to get off Facebook and return to that great democratizer—beer.