Mixed Messages: Heineken’s Failed Experiment

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From DJ and nightlife culture to responsible consumption of alcohol, Heineken’s new marketing campaign falls short of its proposed intent.

Corporate branding campaigns, no matter how intricate, are designed to sustain and increase the sale of products by aligning the corporate brand with a particular (sub)cultural symbol or icon. This partnership lends the corporate brand the authenticity and legitimacy it needs to gain our attention, admiration, and money- but more importantly, our loyalty.

In an effort to brand itself as a socially responsible corporate entity that’s also in-tune to youth culture, Heineken released a web-based video advertisement featuring Dutch trance superstar Armin Van Buuren. Despite my feelings on the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs list (Armin was ranked #2 this past year), it’s clear that Armin Van Buuren has built an established brand delivering high-energy ethereal DJ sets. Armin is the genuine cultural icon Heineken is using (ie: purchased) to tell us that they’re “down.”

The video, deceptively titled “The Experiment,” emerges onto the screen in soft colors and muted tones, as if it is imitating an investigative report by your local TV news crew. We’re led to believe that we have the ‘inside scoop’ on this trendy Heineken-sponsored event taking place at Miami’s famed Mansion Nightclub. Supposedly the only difference between the two nights is the DJ. Let the pseudo-science begin!

On Night 1, we see a single bartender pushing an obnoxiously fake “red button” for every drink sold. The camera pans to men and women leaning against the bar, texting, and looking pretty bored. We’re told the DJ that night is “bad.” End result? Fewer folks on the dance floor, but 1078 drinks sold over the course of the night.

Night 2′s footage opens with a hoodie-clad Armin Van Buuren making his way through the crowd. As the clock hits midnight the floor begins to fill, and by 2AM we see Van Buuren in the infamous “Jesus Pose” – it’s a party! The camera pans to a shot of the “drink counter” and it displays a paltry 632 drinks sold.

As the video comes to a close, Armin’s voice claimsthe experiment works for sure, ’cause I think if the music is good because people hit the dancefloor, and the more they dance the slower they drink.” In the final seconds of the video, the superimposed slogan for Heineken’s responsible drinking campaign is made abundantly clear: “Dance More, Drink Slow.”

I am in favor of dancing more and drinking slow – the nightlife industry is plagued with a host of issues, and alcohol and substance abuse are two of the most prevalent, yet rarely discussed. This message, however, was communicated by Heineken in an incredibly problematic and indirect way. What bothers me about this ad isn’t that Heineken sought to exercise “corporate responsibility” through a superficial video, but that it chose to impart this message alongside a statement that would offend any working DJ.

Heineken’s ad posits that “bad DJ’s” apparently sell more drinks than “good DJ’s” – and if drink sales are the difference between going home with an agreed-upon amount and getting stiffed, you’d better believe it is our duty as working DJ’s to call this illogical assumption into question.

Implying that people drink less when “good DJ’s” are playing is not only inaccurate, it devalues the services of professional nightclub DJ’s.

Advances in technology have positively impacted the workflow and performance potential of DJs. At the same time, these advances have also made DJing into an easily accessible consumer product. Today, anyone with a Macbook Pro can claim the title of “DJ.” I’m not here to rail against sync-button controllerists, bedroom radio-show brostep evangelists, or beat-match averse virtual DJs, but it would be remiss of us to not make the connection between the prevalence of the “freejay” and the constant struggle to guarantee decent pay for a night’s work. DJ Zimmie’s blog post on this exact topic is essential reading for DJ’s or anyone interested in club culture, and the struggles working DJ’s face nearly every weekend.

Club owners, general managers, and promoters really only have one thing in mind at the end of the night, and that’s the bottom line. The amount of drinks and bottles sold keep the staff (and DJ) paid, and the doors open.

Few, if any nightclubs exist in a vacuum. Club-goers embark upon their evening with the intention of having a good time. If they’re not enjoying themselves at a particular establishment, they’ll leave. To keep them there, bar owners need to invest in talented DJs – the longer people stay, the more they’ll drink. At risk of pointing out the obvious, there’s a reason your favorite nightlife destination books recognizable local and regional talent – because people genuinely enjoy themselves when there’s a good DJ playing!

A skilled club DJ can read a crowd – a quality afforded to those who not only dedicate themselves to the craft, but have paid their dues. You can’t purchase it and it can’t be taught. Professional DJs who can read the crowd are able to raise and lower the energy of the dancefloor in measured and calculated ways – a complex science that takes years of practice to master. We’re aware that the success of the night, no matter how good the music is, will always be measured in what the bar makes – so we employ certain techniques to “rotate” the dancefloor as prime-time approaches to give patrons a chance to frequent the bar. Programming and setlist selection is just as, if not more important than technical ability in the DJ booth. Time and place are everything when it comes to DJing, and professional DJs understand this. We stake our reputation on having intimate knowledge of the songs that open the room and set the vibe, the cuts that will send the crowd to the bar head-nodding, intent on returning – and we know which combinations of tracks will bring them running back, drinks-in-hand. “Bad DJs” kill the floor. “Good DJs” are able to sustain it in an engaging manner for hours on-end.

We’re already dealing with bottom-feeder freejay’s, cringe-worthy quick-buck promoters, and GMs who exist solely to ensure that bottles keep being sold – the last thing working DJs need is Heineken lending credence to the “scientifically sound, Armin Van Buuren-approved” idea that qualified professional DJs who command a fair rate for their time and services are not worth investing in because the club won’t make as much money on drink sales.

Furthermore, if the makers of Heineken are seriously concerned about promoting the responsible consumption of alcohol, perhaps they ought to consult widely available public health literature on alcohol abuse and dedicate their time and resources to the promotion of proven harm-reduction strategies. For starters, the alcohol industry consistently engages in the subversive and indirect marketing of alcoholic beverages to adolescents and elementary school-aged children. In addition, the deliberate industry marketing efforts in low-income communities and communities of color are problematic. Instead of engaging in a cosmetic corporate responsibility campaign to promote “responsible drinking,” why not invest in public health infrastructure to make mental health and addiction counseling more widely available, and end the age-old alcohol industry practices mentioned above?

Heineken’s senior Global Brand Director Gianluca Di Tondo spoke of the ad saying:

For us, “Dance More, Drink Slow” is an opportunity to create a moderation movement – a fresh look at how we approach the single most difficult issue that affects our industry today. Collaborating with Armin Van Buuren – another iconic Dutch brand – to create ‘Save My Night’ sends a clear message to consumers that they can enjoy themselves, while also remaining in control.”

The seemingly good intention behind Heineken’s poorly-designed “experiment” does little to offset the unintended message of the advertisement that maligns the employability of talented “good” professional DJs, and makes light of a very serious public health issue. Drink responsibly? Advertise responsibly? You’re not fooling us.