How did this happen? Behind Heineken Light's 'lighter is better' ad mistake

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Credit: Heineken

Heineken Light began running its "sometimes lighter is better" campaign in Europe as far back as last summer without any noticeable backlash, as evidenced by an installment posted on Heineken Ireland's YouTube page in June. But it only took a few days for the campaign to spark complaints when it began running in the U.S. this month, forcing the brewer's U.S. division to pull the ads this week.

The campaign by Publicis came under intense scrutiny after Chance the Rapper on Sunday slammed it as "terribly racist" in a tweet to his more than 7 million followers. Heineken quickly apologized and spokespeople later confirmed that the ads had been pulled. The prompt action could limit damage to the brand, which has a reputation as having a strong affinity from African American drinkers. But the larger lesson might be the inherent danger when brands try to import work into the U.S. from abroad.

"What sometimes is acceptable in Europe isn't acceptable in the U.S. and I think that a lot of time the failure comes in not really evaluating the impact that it is going to have in a particular region," says Ahmad Islam, CEO of Ten35, an agency that specializes in reaching multicultural, millennial and GenZ consumers.

A Heineken USA spokesman did not respond to a question about the campaign's path to the U.S., or which Publicis office created it. In a statement Monday, the marketer said, "while we feel the ad is referencing our Heineken Light beer—we missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns."

One of the ads that ran on TV in the U.S. shows a bartender sliding a Heineken Light down a bar to a woman who appears dissatisfied with her glass of wine. The beer passes several dark-skinned bargoers, including a man playing a guitar, before reaching the woman, who has lighter skin than some of the other patrons. It first ran on U.S. TV on March 12, according to iSpot, and showed up in programming including NBA basketball, ESPN's "SportsCenter" and "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" on CBS.

"There's not much question that this could very easily be viewed as offensive, depending on someone's lens to the world," says Islam, whose previous agency experience includes working on MillerCoors brands. "You have to be cognizant of not just what your intent is, but you have to be cognizant of people's mindset and the state of the world we are living in right now, and the context in which stuff is being consumed."

"We are in a hyper-sensitive racial environment right now," he says.

Chance the Rapper tweeted about the ad while accusing some companies of "purposely putting out noticably racist ads so they can get more views." (To be sure, the Heineken Light ad has drawn widespread media coverage, ranging from USA Today to BBC, but much of the attention was sparked by his tweet.) His charge drew a range of reaction from followers:

The version of the campaign posted on the brand's Ireland YouTube page includes a scene similar to the U.S. ad. It uses the same bartender, but with a few different twists. The beer ends up with a white man who is socializing with a black woman. (The ad was still live as of Tuesday afternoon, while the U.S. ads have been pulled from Heineken USA's YouTube page.)

The incident is only the latest example of brand teams failing to recognize potential racial sensitivities that seem obvious, especially after ads reach wider audiences and are shared on social media.

The most high-profile example, of course, is Pepsi's widely mocked Kendall Jenner-joins-a-protest spot from a year ago that was criticized for co-opting movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial gain. Late last year, Dove said it regretted a body wash ad showing a black woman taking off her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath. In January, H&M apologized for an online ad depicting a black child in a sweatshirt with text reading "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle." In February, Ram trucks ran into trouble for a Super Bowl ad that used a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to sell trucks.

The mistakes come as the marketing industry struggles to make gains on racial diversity among top personnel. Only 13 percent of top marketing executives such as CMOs are people of color, according to a report released today by the Association of National Advertisers, which collected data from 747 member companies. Only 3 percent of the top jobs are held by African Americans, according to the report.

"You have decision makers that are largely white and may not have that perspective or that understanding of culture," Islam says. In those cases, it falls on lower-level employees to speak up when noticing something that is amiss. But often, "there is no one in the room or when they are in the room they basically get run over by consensus."

The bottom line: Marketers must create an open environment where feedback can come from anywhere. And when evaluating campaigns, executives must take into account not just how the ads will be received by their core consumer targets—which is the traditional method—but by people of all races and backgrounds. Because you are only one tweet away from danger.

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