Heineken has recently joined the ever-growing list of companies who have had to remove and publicly apologise for ads, after being called out for racism. The ad in question, shows a bartender sliding a bottle of beer to a woman and ending with the tagline ‘Lighter is Better’. Whilst this “lightness” is seemingly referencing the beverage itself, Chance the Rapper was one of many to notice that the beer is shown to pass several dark-skinned actors before reaching the noticeably lighter-skinned woman, for whom this beer was intended.
In their public apology, Heineken claim to have “missed the mark”, essentially meaning that they did not consciously decide to make their advertisement racist and offend people. A huge problem with this apology however, is that it is – word-for-word – the same apology that other companies have given when finding themselves in the same situation. When Dove apologised for their skincare advertisement last year, showing a darker-skinned woman turning into a lighter-skinned woman they also claimed to have “missed the mark”. This seems to have become the go-to Get-Out-of-Jail card and quite frankly, it’s pathetic.
Not only does the fact that they keep on “missing the mark” prove this statement to be an empty apology, but the use of the statement itself shows they have not fully understood why the advertisement, whichever one, is problematic. This inability to see the racism is not just a problem of the product companies and their advertising agencies. When, earlier this year, H&M pulled an advertisement showing a darker-skinned child wearing a jumper saying “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” whilst the lighter-skinned kid wore one saying “Survival Expert” I noticed some people on my Facebook newsfeed, all of whom were White, claimed the advertisement was not racist because H&M had not purposefully tried to make a racial connection by putting the Black kid in the monkey jumper. I am pretty confident that there will be a similar attempt to defend this Heineken ad; that Heineken didn’t realise they were implying “lighter is better” also referred to skin colour. This however, is not the point. For something to be racist, the intention is irrelevant; what matters is the outcome and how it can be perceived by the marginalised group who are hyper-aware of such displays of ignorance.
As someone with a lot of White privilege, I have had to have, arguably more subtle, displays of racism pointed out to me. This is because a huge part of my privilege is that I do not have to be aware of when these acts of ignorance take place. Similar to how a cis-man may not realise or understand when something is sexist, as a woman who encounters sexism on some level on an almost daily basis, I am painfully aware of such instances. By not noticing the racist implications of how they were portraying their Black actors, Heineken showed how White Privilege continues to play a worryingly large role in the media.
It is often not a comfortable position to accept something is racist, sexist, transphobic (the list of -phobes and -ists is endless) because, in doing so you, are acknowledging how you have benefited from certain social structures at another groups expense. This discomfort means it is often easier to argue against something being offensive. All that you are really doing though, is attempting to invalidate someone or a group of people’s experience; one they definitely have far more authority on than you.
The worrying number of racist ads appearing – and swiftly disappearing – recently shows that there is still a serious problem with representation and companies are still struggling to fully appreciate how White privilege is causing them to repeatedly “miss the mark”. Instead of issuing generic apologies, these companies need to actively change how they market their products. The way forward is to accept that these incidents, regardless of intention, are rooted in a structure of privilege that allows the people who benefit, to not even realise that the structure exists. Being unable to see this can no longer be accepted as a sufficient excuse and arguing against it is even worse.
Image: Max Noisa