Heineken Beer Dismantles the Traditional Family

A dozen people are smiling and holding Heineken beers. Text at the bottom of the image say, "Tradition doesn't always have to be traditional."

Caity Bell, a student in Prof. Ramey REL501 course, ponders the invention of tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.


The holiday season is fast upon us and with it a substantial rise in commercials meant to tug upon consumers’ heartstrings, to invoke that special sense of holiday cheer that drives us, no doubt, to purchase more products than we have year-round. If you don’t run from the room the second the commercials start rolling then perhaps you’ve seen Heineken’s most recent holiday-themed ad, wherein those traditional notions of the American nuclear family are torn away.

As you can see in the video above, while the camera pans around the room—with Dean Martin’s classic You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You playing in the background—we’re exposed to what at first appears to be a holiday gathering composed of that classic family schema we’ve come to expect in American media. The father (as designated by small white text which briefly lights the screen) sits in a corner of the room, bottle of beer nearby (this is after all an advert for Heineken), while across from him sits the mother and sister, both pleasantly smiling at the camera as it glides across the large living room. Then, however, the camera shifts to a man cheerily painting, who’s designated to be the mom’s new boyfriend and from here we continue on our tour of the busy household with introductions to the boyfriend’s stepdaughter as well as various members of the dad’s “new” family (and a quirky moment when an apparent stranger is present, introduced as simply “and whoever that guy is”). The commercial ends with the image of this diverse family standing poised together before the fireplace while the words “tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional” flash across the screen.

Yet has tradition ever been traditional? In short, no. Tradition, rather than being some ancient, set in stone way of doing things, is more often than not a more recent invention, a way of authorizing one group’s set of ideals over another’s. A tool for providing a sense of social cohesion within a group, tradition serves as a means of binding present ideals and beliefs to some distant past as a way of validating their continued persistence. The word itself becomes invoked when something is at stake, a way of bringing value or necessity to some practice or ideal as being time-honored and revered when in fact it may not actually be so.

Take, for example, a 2014 Supreme Court case wherein the language of tradition was used by the defendants to win their trial. In the Town of Greece v. Galloway hearing, the town, brought to court on charges of violating First Amendment rights by beginning their council meetings with Christian prayer, was allowed to continue this practice on the grounds that, rather than being religious, the practice was a part of the town’s “tradition”. Thus, by rooting the practice in the town’s history, it was granted a semblance of authority and presented as a seemingly unbiased argument rather than a practice with some utility or underlying motive for an interested party. Have the town’s meetings always, in fact, began in this fashion? Perhaps, perhaps not, yet what is interesting to note, rather than debating the authenticity of this claim, is how the label of tradition comes into play as soon as the practice is contested.

The idea of the American nuclear family as well, with its image of one mother and one father together raising 2.5 kids, is not as traditional as we believe it to be, the idea largely popularized after the emergence and success of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution and only further cemented as the American ideal through popular television shows aired in the 1950s. Throughout our history families have held to many molds which don’t fit this traditional image—as long reaching and ever-present as it may seem. Even our beloved holiday traditions bear roots to a less distant past, as Christmas itself, with its festive trees and jolly ol’ Saint Nic, was banned for a time in the U.S. by Puritans who saw those traditions as having no place in a Christian nation. In fact many of the traditions now prominent in Christmas celebrations were not in practice until the late 19th century when they were merged into popular culture by the immigrants who brought them over.

So then, tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional? Well, it seems that tradition itself has never actually been “traditional.”  Thus the Heineken ad’s final line is absolutely right. Using the language of tradition to describe a family or a practice does not have to reflect some longstanding form; tradition has never been traditional.


Image credit: Still from video by HeinekenUSA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G15pfHZfNg

I’m Not That Superstitious

Superstitious Blog Post

By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

Ian is a Cultural Studies PhD Candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His PhD thesis explores discourse surrounding lucky and protective objects in Montréal, Québec.


The label ‘superstitious’ is not a neutral designation. Calling a belief or practice superstitious usually implies that belief or practice is irrational, deluded, or at the very least silly. There is also a sense that human progress has depended upon humankind overcoming its superstitions and delusions, replacing magical explanations with rational ones, and consigning belief in the efficacy of good luck charms to the dustbin of history. Yet as the psychologist Stuart A Vyse has argued, superstitions persist even in our technologically advanced world. Although we might grin or roll our eyes at the notion that a rabbit’s foot, four-leaf clover, or lucky coin might have real effects in the world, many of us still possess lucky objects – including President Obama.

In his yearly YouTube interview, the president spoke with the prolific YouTube creator Ingrid Nilsen. Nilsen asked the president to bring in a personal item and to speak about what it means to him. Instead, president Obama brought several items: a rosary given to him by Pope Francis, a little Buddha figure given to him by a Buddhist monk, a lucky poker chip given to him by a biker, a statuette of the Hindu god Hanuman, and a Coptic cross from Ethiopia. According to Obama, these objects are just a few examples of the many “lucky charms or keepsakes” that people have given him over the years – lucky charms that the president now habitually keeps in his pocket.

Russell McCutcheon has already commented on how the president keeping non-Christian religious objects has caused some to question his Christian credentials. But while there is much to be said about claims concerning authentic (or in this case inauthentic) religious practices, I am more interested in the ways Obama explains and justifies carrying these kinds of objects on his person.

Obama’s rationale for carrying around lucky objects in his pockets is interesting to me because it highlights some of the findings of my PhD research on lucky and protective objects in Montréal, Québec. What I’ve found is that while many people possess and use lucky and protective objects in their daily lives, they (like Obama) seem to employ a number of strategies to rationalize and explain their apparently superstitious beliefs and practices.

I first noticed this trend in the online survey I conducted. While many of my respondents reported possessing lucky and protective objects, a large number of these also added additional explanations or disclaimers in the comments section at the end of the survey. Some respondents assured me that of course they did not take any of this seriously. Other respondents explained that their objects were not powerful in themselves but instead instilled confidence in them during difficult situations. Still others explained that these objects were simply mementos of important people in their lives. So how does Obama explain his lucky objects?

Like many of my research participants, Obama explains that these objects are not really about luck at all but instead remind him either of particular values (the rosary from Pope Francis makes him think about “peace and promoting understanding and ethical behaviour.” for instance), or else of particular people he has “met along the way.” But Obama also offers a psychological explanation of the objects’ efficacy when he remarks, “If I feel tired or I feel discouraged sometimes I can kinda reach into my pocket and I say yeah, that’s something I can overcome.” The idea that lucky objects work via human psychology rather than through actual magic is also popular among academics. Bronislaw Malinowski, for instance, has argued that Trobriand islanders use magic to manage particularly dangerous situations such as offshore fishing.

But if lucky objects really only remind their owners of important memories or help instill confidence in stressful situations, why call them lucky at all? Or to put it somewhat differently, given these sophisticated and rational explanations, are lucky objects really superstitious?

My research indicates that (at least some) people really do believe that lucky objects bring good luck via supra rational means. The problem is that they tend to be very reluctant to admit this. Over the last year I have conducted several in-depth semi-structured interviews with Montrealers in order to further explore this issue. Several of my respondents have commented on the apparent social stigma associated with possessing good luck charms. As one interview participant puts it, “I do find that you have to be careful who you talk about this stuff with because some people will be like oh my god, you’re crazy, what are you talking about?” As another explains, “lucky objects are “considered old-fashioned and not scientific and something old people will do but it’s dying out and if you do that you’re duped.” Or to return to president Obama, he is careful to note, “I’m not that superstitious so it’s, you know, its not like I think necessarily I have to have them on me at all times.”

Of course it’s very possible that president Obama doesn’t think he has to carry lucky objects on him at all times. But I find it interesting that he nevertheless feels the need to reiterate this in the interview. In fact, while some may be concerned that the president sometimes carries Hindu and Buddhist religious symbols in his pockets, Obama seems more concerned with being labeled superstitious. He isn’t alone in this.

Also, I should note that the photo at the beginning of this post is of a few of the lucky objects I own. But don’t worry – I’m not that superstitious either.