Running for something.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Brands Polarize Just Like Politicians

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

A gay man is selling beer during the NBA playoffs.

In a light-hearted ad airing repeatedly during the pro basketball games, television- and Broadway-star Neil Patrick Harris is hawking Heineken Light. I noticed the commercial in part because it's such a stark counterpoint to a more traditional alcohol ad airing during the playoffs.

In that ad, part of a series, actor Ray Liotta sidles up to a bar silent and cool, staring down another guy who lacks the requisite guyness to order the same 1800 Tequila as Liotta. (Before Liotta, another actor who became famous playing a mobster, Michael Imperioli, played the tequila brand's tough guy.) The chief creative officer of the ad agency behind the Liotta ads told Adweek, "It's about what tequila used to be, which is mystery and toughness -- a guy's guy's drink."

Actually, it's about something even more rudimentary: preying (dully, predictably) on masculine insecurity for profit.

Beer advertising has traditionally been a bro world, with a visual vocabulary limited to stereotypical expressions of masculinity. Tough guys and hot babes rule. Heineken is offering a different vision. Although light beer tends to get less macho treatment, a clever, funny, glib, gay, Tony-winning, song-and-dance man is not the beer-hawking norm -- Harris's past engagement with bro culture notwithstanding. 

A few years ago, Heineken targeted masculine insecurity in the ugliest way, basically marketing misogyny in 12-ounce increments. An ad featured Jay Z fetching himself a Heineken and disregarding a female friend's request to refill her champagne glass. Like Liotta in the tequila ad, Jay Z conveyed his contempt for the unworthy other in the frame. Jay Z is world-renowned for his remarkable capacity to articulate. Yet to sell beer, the mega-famous rapper went mute.

A 2013 Harvard Business Review article on brand polarization cited a competition between two hard cider brands in the U.K. After a new advertising campaign helped transform Magners, a cider, into "a hip drink for young upscale professionals, a demographic that hadn’t consumed much cider in the past," a rival brand, Strongbow, decided to "drive a wedge in the market."

In 2009 it launched an ad campaign with the tagline “Bowtime: Hard Earned,” featuring images of working-class drinkers hoisting glasses of Strongbow as a reward for a hard day on the job. The strategy succeeded: Although hipsters began to view Strongbow negatively, its appeal among traditional cider drinkers intensified -- and as polarization increased, so did sales.

Heineken's choice of Harris seems indicative of a similar kind of polarization, although class seems a less obvious wedge here than cultural politics. In the familiar landscape of beer marketing, Harris counts as counter-cultural. Even less obvious choices have caused friction. A 2013 Cheerios ad featuring a multiracial family may not have been intended to polarize -- but judging from the racist reactions it elicited, it surely did. When the cereal brand opted to follow up with another ad using the same multiracial actors, however, it knew exactly where it was planting its cultural flag: with the emerging multiracial majority and in opposition to racial conservatives

Likewise, a 2014 Cadillac ad that all but screams "Republican" is too knowingly crafted to be any kind of mistake. It traffics in snide stereotypes about Europeans and suggests that buying more "stuff" -- including a Cadillac -- is the reward for people who make their own luck. (So spare me your liberal sob story about inequality and lack of opportunity.)

The linkage of political identities and brands isn't new. (Democratic Subarus, Republican Cadillacs, as the New York Times reported.) It makes sense that a polarized cultural and political sphere would encourage polarized consumer branding, as well. If you watch the Harris Heineken ad and the Liotta tequila ad, you can't help but make assumptions about a host of underlying values being conveyed. Harris may like plenty of "stuff," for example -- he's rich and famous and can afford it -- but he seems a better fit with the Cheerios family. And we don't have to guess where he stands on gay marriage. After Liotta's character leaves the bar, by contrast, it's not hard to imagine him riding off into the sunset, silent and alone -- in a Cadillac with a Ted Cruz sticker on the bumper.

Perhaps we'll know that political polarization is easing when we can watch a game on TV without having to choose teams even during the commercial breaks.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net