At 11:55 on a Thursday morning, I leave my office at the World Trade Center and climb into a black Lincoln Town Car. As we join the school-of-fish Tribeca traffic, the driver says, “30th and 12th, right?” I have absolutely no idea where we’re going and I tell him as much. All I know is this: We are going wherever Heineken wants us to go.
Growing up as an impatient indoor kid, my greatest fantasy was to fast-forward past commercials. When I complained to my father about our inability to do so, he said that without commercials, there couldn’t be any TV at all. Commercials weren’t supposed to be the crap in between shows, as I’d always thought; rather, on some level, shows were supposed to be the crap in between commercials. However, since DVR, YouTube, and Netflix have revolutionized what commercials are, more people than ever are expected to be commercials themselves. Optimally, these commercials should also resemble shows. That is what today is all about.
On the way to whatever is happening at 30th and 12th, I receive a text: “Welcome to the Heineken Dropped experience.” Here’s the part where I have to spell out the exact premise of the company’s latest advertising campaign, a campaign that I volunteered to embody for one strange day. It involves "real" guys getting “dropped” into faraway locales to have adventures for your viral viewing pleasure. Heineken has promised a simulacrum of such an experience for select members of the press today. I was intrigued enough to sign on. Surely I’d get some funny tweet material out of the experience and probably food, too.
The driver drops me off on the West Side Highway at 30th and 12th, near a helipad. Given the nature of the campaign, it looks like the right place. After a few minutes of waiting by a chain-link fence, an office that looks like a glorified RV opens its door, and a woman invites me inside. She is one of two people in the room working with the brand. Four other dude-journalists are here, all of whom are wearing shorts. Across from me hangs a poster swarming with tiny helicopters.
“I’m beginning to suspect that we’re going on a helicopter ride,” I say.
“Who knows what surprises await,” the Heineken woman says, smiling.
“Yeah, you’re going in the helicopter,” says her partner.
Yesterday, I’d received a beach bag by messenger. As we await liftoff, I search through it for clues. The olive green bag contains the following items: fluffy towel, all-terrain hooded shirt, Tide to-go stick, Rite Aid brand trail mix, Swedish Fish, Heineken cell phone case, Heineken bottle opener, goggles, earbuds, flip-flops, sunscreen. These items could just as easily be used for a high-seas expedition as they could a bender in Atlantic City.
Also in the bag is a card that shows all the Twitter handles and Instagram hashtags we’re encouraged to use. (“We love social media,” the Heineken guy says.) Ah, yes, social media, the Wild West of advertising. It’s the most direct way to create a stadium wave of awareness--and possibly make it come across as an accident. Sponsored content that doesn’t immediately scan as sponsored content is the new Magna Carta Holy Grail. That’s where I, and the four other guys in shorts, come in.
Of course, social media isn’t just where corporations advertise their wares; it’s also where jerks like me advertise ourselves. Unfortunately for Heineken’s agency of record, the way I advertise myself is through articles I’ve written, pictures of bad signage, and dick jokes. Tweeting about Heineken or any brand doesn’t jibe with my own dumb brand. Our two brands are at cross-purposes.
The only way I can document what’s happening today online--which looks to be a legitimate good time, albeit a corporate-sponsored one--is by making fun of the experience. This Kool-Aid drinker is keeping a thin sheen of objective distance! I send off a tweet about praying that the helicopter pilot isn’t drunk on Heineken, hoping that this move is a win-win.
As it turns out, a helicopter ride above Manhattan is a wonderful thing. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to realizing my dream of being a crane shot in a Kate Hudson movie about life in the big city. Enormous earmuffs drown out the noise while the glass-and-steel skyline gradually reveals itself like a Transformer money shot. Everybody inside the helicopter alternates between gawking at the view and tweeting about the fact that they are inside a helicopter. I make a Vine of the experience.
We land near the marshy woods of Montauk on Long Island. A cameraman whose hair is gathered in a thin headband films our exit from the aircraft, and suddenly I’m self-conscious. I’d signed a release for this branded adventure, but of course I hadn’t read the fine print. Somewhere, it must have mentioned that my likeness would be used for an actual commercial, not just the social media version.
I check the activity on my Twitter feed. Digital tumbleweeds are rolling through and it’s as though they’re also yawning. Nobody seems to care about the fact that I have just been inside a helicopter. Either that, or they assume I am making an extended dick joke. On Instagram and Facebook, friends don’t seem to mind the fact that I am mentioning Heineken, sufficiently impressed, as it were, by helicopter selfies.
We are immediately hustled into a large black Expedition, where turkey sandwiches await, along with our itinerary. The brand manager driving us around starts to list off a series of activities for the day, one of which is volleyball. Nobody is impressed. Suddenly, a man on the side of the road looks really determined to flag us down, and the driver surprises us by stopping to pick him up.
Our hitchhiker is a bucket hat-wearing beardo whose enthusiasm and affect seem modeled after mid-period Kurt Russell. “JJ” is super psyched about the turkey sandwich we give him, and also everything. He seems shocked to find out that we’re visiting Montauk and not going out on a boat, so he offers up his own boat for our personal usage. JJ’s Civil War reenactment style of acting, along with our driver’s collusion, let me know that we are now off the reservation and firmly lodged in an episode of The Truman Show.
We park in a marina and our new friend leads us to a boat. A grizzled old man with horrendous teeth introduces himself as first mate of this vessel. Once we’re situated, the boat sets out. I feel bad for JJ, who must have a mandate for maintaining an excitement level of “full-tilt boogie.” The other journalists are less antisocial than me, and they engage with him. The boat is going fast and the wind feels nice and this part of Montauk is actually quite beautiful. I take another picture, eager to show my followers that I am on a boat now for some reason. One Twitter stranger responds, “Cool hair-part, bro!” in a way that I would wager is less than genuine. This tweet, like the previous one, is soon deleted.
After riding around for quite a while, Gilligan the Elder begins panicking about something. A hole appears to have sprung up in the boat. JJ panics too, as though his Civil War reenactment team turns out to be The Confederacy. He corrals us starboard as we begin going in circles. It’s impossible not to notice the lack of water spouting out. An enormous catamaran floats by parallel to us, and the drunk people on board stop partying long enough to wave. I can’t see for sure, but perhaps they are drinking Heineken.
We keep going around in circles, and JJ distributes life preservers. The faux crisis has gone on long enough that even the most good-natured among us cannot continue faux panicking. We’re waiting for something to happen, but we know not what. Soon, a tiny speedboat materializes from the ether and pulls up alongside us; a blonde woman in a swimsuit exhorts us to jump inside.
“Better do what she says, bros,” urges JJ.
I instantly jump from our boat to hers. Clearly, this is all staged, and it is weird, but I can’t remember when I was last at the mercy of forces beyond my control at sea, with literally no idea what’s going to happen next. What did happen, though, is that our new driver brought us over to the catamaran we’d seen going by earlier.
Most beer commercials are like jokes; they have a setup and then a punchline, and the punchline almost always involves a group of dudes cracking open some cold ones with babes. While the totality of the day preceding this moment felt like the giddy, staged adventure it was, the moment we board the catamaran and bikini-clad women shove Heinekens in our hands, the day becomes the purest distillation of all things "beer commercial."
The thing about beer commercials, though, is that they end. This moment, the most surreal one of my entire existence, will not end for untold hours. A gangly guy in a speedo and a scarf introduces himself as "Klaus," one of many visiting tourists of dubious origin. I almost laugh at his exaggerated accent and he notices, so now he continues over-pronouncing every word while staring dead into my eyes, daring me to break the illusion of kayfabe. A blonde woman in a fur-lined vest over a bikini begins talking to me in a British accent. She wants to know my thoughts on the royal family. I have absolutely no idea what to do with myself.
Thankfully, there is plenty of Heineken (which is probably the kind of sentence I am supposed to be compulsively tweeting). I drink a lot of it, and eat sandwiches, and even begin to enjoy the weird improv-y conversations I have with German Klaus and British Penelope and every other caricature on board. About a half-hour into the catamaran voyage, a man in a dress shirt calls me over to chat about the eventual article I will write about this experience, and it feels jarring. When you are a human beer commercial, all talk of reality is like sports chat during a Halloween party. "That’s not what we’re doing right now."
The day manages to somehow get slightly weirder, as a fleet of dogs on paddleboards take to the sea, and we’re encouraged to go swim out to them. I haven’t brought a bathing suit, but shorts do dry eventually, and I have had several Heinekens, so I stow away my wallet and dive in. Back aboard the boat later, I’m introduced to William, the poorly traveled American who got "dropped" in Marrakech as part of the campaign we are now simulating. He has a bushy red beard, and he is excited and funny, but hearing him describe his experience just then feels like a commercial for a commercial, as heard inside yet another commercial.
I want to use all my social media platforms to write "HELP!" but instead I have another Heineken.
Eventually, the catamaran raises anchor and we head to shore. Before we are air-freighted back home and to reality, we have a beer-splattered dinner on the deck of a restaurant near the marina from which we initially departed. The other four journalists and I are encouraged to clink Heinekens with William in front of the cameraman, and we oblige. We probably would’ve done so anyway--everybody was pretty buzzed at that point--but the camera’s presence spurs us all to ham it up a little, and the corniness surely reads as beer-commercial authentic.
While I deleted almost every tweet from that day, I left behind a sizable chunk of sponsored bandwidth on Facebook and Instagram. It’s been two weeks now since the trip, and people keep asking what the hell was going on with that day when I was suddenly James Bond or whatever. When they do, I always correct them and say that I was actually being a Heineken commercial, not a magic spy. Then he or she always asks why Heineken did such a thing, and I respond that it’s so we can have this very conversation.
Being a commercial was something I still feel a little conflicted about. For an entire day, I was a thing you would want to fast-forward past. I genuinely had a fun time, though, ate some decent food, and at the very least, I got a new avatar out of it--the better with which to advertise myself.