Heineken is paying forty five million dollars toward the production of Skyfall, the newest James Bond film, in exchange for product placement. Actually, it’s not just product placement. In the new film, James Bond will be asking for Heineken beer by name rather than his signature “Martini; shaken, not stirred.” George Lazenby, who played Bond in “Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” has let it be known that he does not approve. George Lazenby is right, and here’s why.
James Bond’s signature drink, like every element of a mythical character, is symbolic. Bond’s precisely prepared martini says that he knows what he wants, but doesn’t have time to waste thinking about beverages. He isn’t interested in brands or labels, because his social status is so high that he defines the things he associates himself with rather than being defined by them. He’s tough and direct as well as refined and cosmopolitan; he drinks a strong cocktail. The Martini (a combination of gin, vermouth, and bitters) first became popular in the US in the nineteen twenties. It contains nothing but liquor and ice, and it’s both respectable and a bit dangerous. The martini’s prohibition roots give it a sense of history and culture as well as a bit of an edge. The way James Bond drinks his martinis – with ice and shaken, not stirred – waters them down, and that’s usually noted with a certain amount of contempt. However, a man who risks his life in the course of his work and requires absolute accuracy in using guns, cars and ground breaking spy technology can’t afford to be drunk on the job! He’s never really able to relax, and he always wants to stay in control.
Like a martini, a glass of Heineken beer has a meaning. Heineken is an average mass market lager. There are better and worse lagers in the average liquor store cooler. Lager itself is a style of beer that became popular in the nineteen seventies and eighties in the UK, and decades earlier in the US, after prohibition had decimated local and regional breweries. Lager is a mild tasting, carbonated beer. It’s refreshing on hot days, and the flavor is easier for unadventurous people to appreciate than that of stronger tasting beer like ales, porters and stouts. Various brands of lager have been heavily marketed for decades, mostly to working and middle class men. In the nineteen eighties in the UK, lager was being marketed to working people as a sophisticated, continental alternative to ale. That’s the old marketing trope that Heineken is attempting to resuscitate with this film placement.
Heineken wants to associate itself with James Bond’s sophisticated, upper class, masculine, devil-may-care persona. The people in charge of branding Heineken beer want men to think that ordering it will make them irresistibly attractive to women, like the James Bond character is supposed to be. Unfortunately, Heineken is already well branded. It’s had an international presence for decades. In fact, the Heineken brand is probably as well known as the James Bond character. When you put the two together, Bond will not define Heineken. The two will influence each other, with Heineken saying as much about Bond as Bond does about Heineken. Since a preference for the Heineken brand is so out of character for James Bond, it may influence the character’s branding more than the beer’s.
What will Heineken say about Bond? It will say that he responds to beer marketing with a strong preference for a product that is, in reality, undistinguished. Moreover, it will say that’s he’s the kind of person that cares about what boring and conventional people think of him. This will make Bond look like a lower middle class social climber or a person who likes to play it safe by displaying mainstream taste.
The BBC recently aired a documentary on MI6, the United Kingdom’s real spy agency. The documentary stressed that MI6 has a new face. Rather than recruiting agents from the best universities, they are now looking for ordinary Brits who can blend into a variety of groups and situations. The documentary showed the banal side of intelligence work, and stressed the diverse ethnic and class backgrounds of today’s agents. Perhaps this lager drinking Bond is a new-style agent for the new MI6. Will he be spending most of the movie on a stakeout, struggling to stay awake, drinking highly caffeinated beverages and eating branded fast food? Will the character become as boring as Heineken beer?
The martini-drinking James Bond is compelling because of his privileged background and his disinterest in convention. He is fearless, singular and strong-minded. A Heineken drinking Bond is conventional and susceptible to something as simplistically manipulative as beer marketing. That is not the James Bond that women find sexy and men fantasize about being.