Updated: This article has been significantly expanded after reading a few dissenting opinions this weekend. I still love the ad. A lot. But there are a few valid points in the dissension that I address as best as possible.
If you have not watched Heineken’s, “Worlds Apart Experiment”, you should take four minutes and do so. The experiment ad quickly went viral with most of the internet heaping high praise for its tasteful, simple approach in tackling important topics. I agree. It’s lovely and I adore it. I’ve watched it several times and I think it’s very well produced. It’s also completely staged. And that doesn’t matter.
Now, by “staged” I don’t mean “fake.” The video was produced by a UK based ad agency called Publicis London. They do an exceptionally fine job of realistic deception. For context, I ran casting sessions in NYC for several years, I’ve directed a thousand actors and I’ve spent about fifty thousand hours on set and in an editing booth. I can spot an actor ad libbing from ten paces away. I can spot non actors. I can also spot acting. No matter how good. I bring this up because the first minor backlash I noticed came from a feeling that the commercial is staged, that the participants are actors saying scripted lines, and the entire thing is fake and therefore not to be liked.
Heineken responded on Twitter, saying there was no acting, and that the ad features "real stories.” Easy to say, right? Well, based on my experience, I’m going to say, Heineken is probably being truthful -- the people in the video are not actors.
That being said, the participants in the experiment all recorded an introduction video and it’s that intro that I do sense a bit of “acting.” But that’s to be expected because, people, when they are in front of a camera -- they change. They posture, they don’t know what to do with their hands and they exaggerate and / or deflect in equal measure. Basically, they do everything they can to look and sound, “sincere.” That, right there, generally leads to bad acting. Even though they’re not acting.
We live in an era where even phones have cameras. People are used to being recorded but that doesn’t mean everyone suddenly becomes Meryl Streep. In the ad intro video, I have no doubt those people are saying things they believe. But some of them try too hard to be sincere, or controversial, because that’s the image they want to project. The climate change denier actually comes out and says he’s controversial, which is clearly his bag. He likes being the controversial one. Which does put some doubt into how sincere he is about his denial. But then again, maybe he’s just a bad actor.
Anyway, I think both sides are correct. The people in the video are non actors saying things they believe in and they sometimes come off stagey because it is a produced advert that probably forced them to tell their stories again (and maybe again, and again).
Then, you’ll note, multiple camera are used when the people run through the experiment. Either Publicis London used a dozen cameras to shoot each experiment in one take, or they did multiple takes of each experiment. Either way it produces the “stagey” effect that put some people off.
Again, this doesn’t mean the people in the video are actors following a script, it just means that, like reality television, nothing is one hundred percent authentic. It’s very possible these are non actors using anecdotes from their own lives and when confronted with multiple cameras and multiples takes and multiple costumes they come off as staged and over directed.
The second controversy I’ve read, explores the ethics and safety of the experiment. This controversy claims that the ad is dangerous because not all the participants are "ethically" equal, pitting folks with progressive views against those with regressive opinion. I see some merit in this argument.
Two white men, one a climate change denier, the other, a climate change believer. Since they are both white men they are on equal sociological footing, so to say. Even though there is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening and this shouldn’t be an actual argument, these two men are still on equal footing. There is no implied threat to your safety between two white men having opposing views on climate change.
BUT if you take a black woman who is a self described feminist and white man who is a self described alt right believer suddenly you don’t have two equal viewpoints. One viewpoint is for equal rights the other is for open intolerance. The dissenting view is that it is uniformly unfair for her. Why should she have to defend herself or her views to that guy?
AND THEN you take a well built white man and put him with a thin transgender woman. The white male thinks transgenders are weird and gross, the transgender woman, obviously, feels transgender rights are important. Put them in an empty room.
This is a bit unsettling. Who would do this? Who would set people up like this? Who would send a transgender woman into a meat grinder forcing her to spend time with someone who believes she is less than human? Mirah Curzer over at Athena Talks writes in her dissenting opinion, “The transphobe who agrees to have a beer with the trans woman is sacrificing nothing … Worse, it’s heavily implied that the transgender woman, were she to walk away, would make her just as intolerant as the bigot who views her with disgust.”
That’s true. The ad implies just that. And it’s a fair point because, were the transgender woman to walk away, she would be doing so for a reason of safety and not because of intolerance.
But, it’s important to note, she doesn’t walk away. And neither does anyone else. Because the ad mainly reinforces the truth that the war against intolerance is fought one person at a time. And more importantly -- she already knows she is safe.
This is reality television. This is a staged ad. The participants are not alone. Producers, camera operators and crew members are all over the place. Even if said crew are not in the exact same room as the participants they are nearby, watching.
The ad even has costume changes for God’s sake. Which, I strongly feel, is one of the missteps of the ad. The costumes are bit too on the nose. I mean, did they really have to costume the feminist in a “smash the patriarchy,” shirt? Anyway, all I’m saying is that you can pretty much be guaranteed all the participants knew there was no physical danger.
Emotional discomfort? Probably. Danger? No. And I am not trying to dismiss emotional pain or fear. It’s true that the experiment manufactured a potentially extremely uncomfortable situation between the young black woman / alt right male and the transphobe / transgender woman. I get it.
But I can also guarantee you that these people signed legal documents and had conversations with folks at the ad agency and had discussions with produces. Which means they were aware that something was going to happen. They all knew they were going to be in a controlled experiment and I’m sure they were all told that safety personnel would break the bloody door down and extract anyone who felt threatened.
Anyway. I love this ad. It produces emotion in the viewer and it does so by pointing the camera at people and asking them to talk to each other. It’s extremely effective because the human face and human emotion is far more powerful than CGI or over produced musical scores. It makes zero difference if the Worlds Apart video is scripted, acted and manipulated in editing or if it is entirely as realistic and truthful as the ad suggests. Either way, it genuinely says something about life.
It also tries to sell you beer. It is, after all, a beer ad.
I’m not trying to tell anyone how to feel. Folks can be as cynical as they want about the Worlds Apart ad and if it makes them angry then it makes them angry. But in this very divisive world of Brexit and President Trump the differences presented in the video are all too common. All the ad suggests is that maybe the best way to tackle extreme difference is to engage. One person at a time.
Does that sound way too assine and simple? Can a man who says, “Women should be at home making my babies,” and a woman wearing a, “smash the patriarchy” shirt ever find common ground? The condescending, smug, snotty side of my brain laughs at the very thought.
But I offer anecdotal proof in “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America,” a documentary about an African American musician who has spent decades trying to befriend KKK members in order to change their mind about people of color. Davis found that the more he was willing to listen to their grievances, the more willing they were to listen to him. You should watch the documentary. Davis has been quite effective on his journey. His journey to fight intolerance by talking, and listening, and engaging.