Young Males Are Out to Get Drunk, Not Pay It Forward

Wieden's Spot for Heineken Premium Light Avoids the Cliches, but the Strategy Verges on the Bizarre

By Published on .

Wieden & Kennedy is one of the finest agencies in the world. For 25 years, if you've viewed its work expecting to be not only impressed but inspired, you've seldom been disappointed.

Although, it seems, less seldom all the time.

First its London shop -- creator of Honda's astonishing, transcendent "Cog" and "Grrrr" -- goes off the rails with Hondamentalism. Then the Portland main office performs badly on the Super Bowl, with underwhelming work for CareerBuilder and an absolutely dreadful politically themed spot, aptly titled "Jinx," for Coca-Cola. And now, given the unenviable task of advertising Heineken Premium Light, it behaves, well, unenviably.

Not atrociously, mind you. Or even embarrassingly (such as in the cringeworthy Bill Frist/James Carville debacle). No, this Heineken spot about people of all cultures coming together in the spirit of goodwill is well-crafted, cute and kind of uplifting, in a phony Madison Avenue sort of way. It depicts one person after another offering a cold beer to a stranger of a different race, culture, lifestyle, economic circumstance -- and each in turn is moved to do the same. All this to a (disturbingly) catchy, bubblegum ditty:
I need you. I need you every single day, and I want you.
I want you every single way, and it's love.
It's love. It's l-l-l-l-l-l-love. It's love.
So snappy, so sappy. In 1971, it would have done McCann-Erickson proud.

In fact, in 1971 it did do McCann-Erickson proud, when we first witnessed the concept of a carbonated drink uniting the planet. It was called "Hilltop," and it taught the world to sing in perfect harmony. But, of course, that was 37 years ago, when the collective consciousness had a much less developed gag reflex.

This is 2008. We're not in an "It's a Small World After All" era; we're in a "World of Warcraft" era. Pollyanna fantasies don't much scan, especially with the presumed target audience of young men. Not to stereotype or anything, but by and large, men don't drink beer to make the world a better place. They drink beer to cruise women, escape women, wash down nachos and get stinking blotto.

So while "Share the Good" is a laudable sentiment and certainly avoids the category's clich�s, it is a strategic choice that verges on the bizarre. Heineken Premium Light, remember, is risking cannibalization of Heineken's own Amstel Light brand explicitly because Amstel skews older and female. We'd love to see the research that says: "Young and male. Think: touchy feely."

But it's not just that. And it's not just that the premise is derivative of "Hilltop." It's not even that the theme is even more derivative of "Pay It Forward," the Kevin Spacey treacle that made all 843 people who saw it in theaters lapse into a diabetic coma. What's so eyebrow-raising here is how derivative this ad is of previous "Pay It Forward" knockoffs -- notably ones for Liberty Mutual insurance (Hill Holliday, Boston); the American Red Cross (Nerve, Portland, Ore.); and, lo and behold, in the "Grand Theft Auto" send-up called "Video Game," none other than Coke (Wieden & Kennedy).

Yes, the agency seems itself to be paying it forward, and we wish they'd cut it out.

One of the things that early on defined Wieden, after all, was the insight that you don't have to sweet-talk consumers to touch them. "Just do it" was the apotheosis of that aesthetic. Even "Grrr," for all its rainbows and pastels and whistling, had a sharp edge; however archly, it glorified hate. Let's see ... what were those lyrics?
Hate something. Change something. Hate something, change something, make something better.
Our sentiments exactly.

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