How Does This Heineken Beer Commercial Reduce Toxic Polarization?

The problem of toxic polarization in America has led many academic researchers to study how we might reduce political animosity. Surprisingly, one of the most efficient depolarization tools we know of is a 2017 Heineken beer commercial. 

Yes, you read that right. We’ll get into why the ad is so effective, but you should watch it first if you haven’t already:

So how in the world did a beer ad end up being the subject of scientific research? In 2021, Stanford University held a Strengthening Democracy Challenge. They asked researchers and organizations to submit short-form interventions (e.g., videos and quizzes) that might reduce political animosity and strengthen people’s commitment to democratic principles. They got more than 250 submissions. 

Daniel F. Stone (author of Undue Hate) and his colleagues submitted an intervention that included having study participants watch the Heineken “Worlds Apart” ad. Of all the interventions they studied, Stanford found this ad was the most effective in the reducing partisan animosity category. 

On average, people who watched the video had their partisan animosity reduced by roughly 10 points on a scale from 0 to 100. Measured on the same scale, partisan animosity in America between 1980 and 2020 increased by around 25 points. So, in a sense, this short video removed roughly 16 years worth of polarization! (Things aren’t that simple — for one thing, it’s found these shifts usually don’t last long — but it gives you a sense of the significance.)

So why does it work? 

We know that overly pessimistic views many Americans have of each other play a role in amplifying toxic polarization. So it makes sense that seeing our political opponents behave in normal and friendly ways can combat our pessimistic assumptions. 

Daniel F. Stone had this to say about why it works: 

The ad was an excellent demonstration of contact theory — that when people have interpersonal contact with people from other social groups, prejudice and hostility tend to dissipate, especially when there are clear common goals. The people in the video have strong and conflicting political views and end up growing to truly like each other, reminding us that we probably would like plenty of people out there who have very different political views from our own if we got to know them. 

This ad is, of course, just an ad. There was presumably much planning to ensure positive interactions happened. But no matter the preparation, the ad reminds us of something that most of us know to be true: We do have the ability to get along with each otherincluding the ability to transcend differences and see each other’s humanity

This is especially true when we connect first as humans, in non-political and non-adversarial ways. And working together on a shared activity, as the people do in this ad, also helps set the stage for bringing out our more generous social instincts. 

In our politically fractured world, so much of our exposure to our political opponents comes to us secondhand; we see them on TV, or we interact with them online (where we often behave badly towards one another). But when we meet in person, our kinder social instincts often take hold. We’re more willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to people, more willing to be curious about people’s beliefs, more willing to see the understandable reasons for their views. 

Despite what we’re often led to believe, we can see each other’s humanity and remove contempt from our hearts, even when we think, “That person is very wrong.” 

The reactions to this piece weren’t all positive. Some called it tone-deaf”; some called it dangerous.” Read our follow-up piece about criticisms of this ad.

One easy thing we can all do to help reduce toxic polarization is to share resources like this with others. Would you be willing to share this post on your favorite social media platform? 

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