Beer Advertising That Mocks Broadcast Boundaries

Heineken Light WebsiteThe first time I saw the Heineken ad campaign featuring actor Neil Patrick Harris, I gave only a bemused grin.

You know the one: Harris extols the virtues of Heineken Light and its Best Tasting Low Calorie Lager award at the 2013 World Beer Championships, and openly mocks the fact that actually drinking alcohol on screen is a no-no.

“Apparently there are rules about drinking beer in commercials, so I’m drinking it over here,” he tells viewers. Then, off-camera, he says, “Ahh, tastes good.”

But think about it: We see lots of beer being poured (usually in slow motion), and we see lots of tan, hot people in snappy clothes holding beers and having fantastic times while doing so, but we never see them drink it. We even see tequila and vodka pours on screen, but no drinkers.

While there is no regulation on this by the Federal Communications Commission, broadcast networks have taken it upon themselves to avoid showing alcohol being consumed, ostensibly to avoid the ire of the religious right and to avoid pissing off advertisers who might not approve.

It harkens to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, a.k.a. the “Hays Code,” a set of “guidelines” observed by Hollywood filmmakers developed near the end of Prohibition to regulate actions by characters on the big screen, from images of childbirth to “sex perversion” to — you guessed it – consumption of alcohol.

But the more I consider the Heineken commercial, and especially the online “behind-the-scenes” content that goes with it, the more I wonder if it represents a step toward change. Media – not to mention society – always, slowly but surely, pushes the envelope ever forward. It’s human nature to require an ever-evolving level of stimulation in order to remain interested.

If you remember, 100 years ago, a photograph of a woman whose body was covered only by a one-piece bathing suit could be considered pornographic. Playboy magazine was once the raciest publication on the market when it launched mid-century. Today, Penthouse, which was on the edge of sexual decency in the 1970s, seems mild. Meanwhile, pop divas and filmmakers alike push boundaries that would make our great-grandparents’ heads explode.

Anti-alcohol sentiment in America has been especially slow to evolve, by my eyes. I spent years in corporate America, wherein if you have a drink of beer at lunch, you’ll get fired on the spot if caught. It was amazing that something as simple as beer could be seen as such an evil.

Dude, take a drink already.

Dude, take a drink already.

Yes, alcoholism is tragic, but it is treated more like a crime than like a symptom to something underlying, something akin to a cry for help. This is how American society operates: condemn the sins, attack the symptoms and ignore the underlying issues (see also: the 1980s and “the War on Drugs”). Fortunately, I don’t have a problem going all day without a beer.

But now we have the Emmy-winning Harris, née Doogie Howser, openly asking why it’s so taboo to drink on screen. AdWeek.com posted an intriguing story about the online content if you want to read more, but Harris basically questions the director about why he can’t drink the beer in his hand. Yes, it’s scripted, but give ad agency Wieden + Kennedy New York credit for pushing an envelope most won’t even touch.

To be fair, there was a similar campaign in the 1980s with “Crocodile Dundee” actor Paul Hogan and Foster’s beer, but clearly very little has changed in regards to sipping beer on camera. In the 1980s, the popularity surge in craft beer was just a glimmer in a legion of home brewers’ eyes. Today, we have a full-on phenomenon, with breweries popping up everywhere and a nation turning its lonely livers to beer with actual flavor.

It’s true that overall beer sales decreased in 2013, but craft beer sales rose. Meanwhile, distilled spirits continue to enjoy a ridiculous surge in popularity, cider continues to gain popularity and drinking in general – socially, not dangerously – seems to be coming back into vogue.

It’s true, the quirky guy from How I Met Your Mother is an unlikely figure to lead the charge, but I for one will keep my eyes peeled to see if 2014 was any sort of turning point. If sales continue to rise and negativity toward spirits and brew continue to fall away, we may start seeing more advertising like this in 2015. It bears watching.

This post was originally published by AlcoholProfessor.com.

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