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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 20, 2014

Neil Patrick Harris Heineken ad: We can't drink on TV

For all the fun you see people having in beer commercials, the one thing you won’t see is someone actually drinking beer. The Dutch brewer Heineken made this the centerpiece of an ad campaign that features the popular actor Neil Patrick Harris.

In this version, Harris is touting the taste of Heineken Light. The video shoot jolts to a halt when Harris tips a bottle to take a sip only to find that the cap is still on. This exchange between Harris and the director follows:

Director: "Cut! Neil, you can’t drink the Heineken Light. Just hold it up."

Harris: "What do you mean? Why can’t I drink it?"

Director: "There are rules about drinking in the commercial."

Harris: " ‘Cause it’s airing during a children’s program or something."

Director: "No."

Harris: "Then why?"

Director: "It’s a regulatory thing. We can’t actually show you drinking Heineken Light on camera."

It’s actually a pretty funny ad as Harris gamely and utterly misses the director’s point

But we wondered about the director’s claim that a "regulatory thing" stops people from drinking beer in commercials. We’ve seen plenty of beer commercials and just always assumed that someone was drinking at some point.

The fact is, however, ad makers successfully are getting us to see more than is on screen.

In case you were wondering, it’s not the long arm of government that’s stopping people from a sip of sudsy brew. A press officer at the Federal Communications Commission, the body in charge of decency and other rules for broadcasters, said FCC rules are silent on drinking on camera.

"Congress has not enacted any law prohibiting broadcast advertising of any kind of alcoholic beverage, and the FCC does not have a rule or policy regulating such advertisements," she said, citing the agency’s website.

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If there’s an iron fist, it belongs to the broadcasters.

Tara Rush, senior director of corporate communications at Heineken USA, said the rules come from TV networks.

"This is a regulation with the actual TV networks," Rush said. "It’s a long-standing rule."

The broadcasters’ trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, has no policy itself, but a spokesman sent us articles that describe how each network is free to set its own standards and, as it stands, when it comes to beer, they frown on public displays of ingestion.

The Heineken ad alludes to this. Near the end, the director talks about network execs getting in a room to agree on a set of rules.

A spokeswoman for The Beer Institute, the voice of brewers, told us their members are loath to take chances with network policy.

"If you’re putting an ad together, you will be as conservative as possible so you know it will get past all the networks," said Megan Kirkpatrick, director of communications at the Institute.

Kirkpatrick said the brewers have no desire to stir things up and risk stirring a cry for a new law.

"The fact that it is self-regulated now, that’s not something brewers would want to put in jeopardy," Kirkpatrick said. "It’s the way they have operated for decades. You show a lot of people enjoying a football game or enjoying a baseball game but you don’t show any consumption. I don't think you’re going to see that change."


Rush left us with this tantalizing thought about the long-standing rule.

"Some networks are now beginning to change it," Rush said.

We doubt Heineken is hoping for a quick shift. If commercials start showing people sipping away, that Heineken ad will be about as enticing as, well, old beer.

Our ruling

A Heineken beer commercial said regulations ban showing someone drinking beer on camera. If you take a more relaxed view of regulations, that’s close to the truth. The rules come from the television networks, not the government. The restriction might not have the force of law but it’s just as effective.

We rate the claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Heineken, 60-second web ad, July 17, 2014

Beer Institute, Advertising and marketing code

Federal Communications Commission, The Public and Broadcasting, July 2008

Adweek, Ad of the Day: Neil Patrick Harris Doesn't Get Why He Can't Drink Heineken Light on TV But here's the explanation, if you're interested, July 18, 2014

New York Times, Heineken Hopes Star Power Will Do the Trick, July 16, 2014

Interview, Zamir Ahmed, senior manager, media relations, National Association of Broadcasters, Aug. 18, 2014

Email interview, Janice Wise, public affairs, Federal Communications Commission, Aug. 18, 2014

Email interview, David Oxenford, partner, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, Aug. 18, 2014

Email interview, Lance Strate, professor of communication, Fordham University, Aug. 18, 2014

Email interview, Tara Rush, senior director, corporate communications, Heineken USA, Aug. 18, 2014

Interview, Megan Kirkpatrick, director of communications, Beer Institute, Aug. 18, 2014


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Neil Patrick Harris Heineken ad: We can't drink on TV

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