You can’t judge a beer by its bottle

Ilearned that in 2011 a most remarkable social experiment was conducted not by MDs or Ph.Ds, psychologists, anthropologist or psychiatrist … but by marketing people … ad-men. You know, the people who make us want all the stuff we really don’t want but make us think we want it long enough to hand over our bank card before we realize we don’t want it … those guys.

It was a television commercial Carlsberg Beer produced in Belgium.The commercial was intended to show one should not judge a beer by its bottle but revealed more about us than about beer. A 150-seat movie theater was packed with 148 biker dudes, guys who looked like Hell’s Angels and the like. They were arranged so that the only two seats left in the theater were smack dab in the middle of all these rough looking bikers. Then the last two tickets were sold to an unsuspecting couple. Most of the couples entered the theater, saw they were surrounded by biker dudes and made the decision to leave even though they just paid to see the movie. Only a few brave men in sweater vest and black framed glasses led their girlfriends by the hand, making that “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me” journey down the row of biker dudes to their seats in the center of the theater. The ones that did, once they took their seats, were handed bottles of Carlsberg Beer and applauded by the biker dudes … much to their relief.

Watching this forced me to wonder how much of the world we separate ourselves from out of fear, the businesses and homes we won’t enter, the neighborhoods we won’t walk through, the schools we won’t attend, the doorbells we won’t allow our children to ring and say “Trick or treat.”

Fear narrows our world. We fear the things, the people, who are different. The problem is that if we were to randomly pick any single one of the 7.35 billion souls living on this planet, the vast, vast majority of all the other souls would be different from that one. In truth, the only thing homogenous about humanity … is our humanity.

But fear is not our problem. There are things, even groups of people, prudence demands we fear. If the theater were to be filled with 148 Klansmen in white sheets … and the last two tickets were sold to an unsuspecting black couple … prudence should make them turn around. If the theater were packed with 148 Al-Qaida, or 148 Klansmen for that matter, I should turn around. But the world is not made up of a preponderance of Klansman or Al-Qaida … just people … all sorts of different people … even some who have tattoos and ride motorcycles. Our problem is not unreasonable fear … its cowardice.

Fear and cowardice are not conjoined twins. Fear, proportional fear, can be a virtue, a thing that keeps us alive. Cowardice is the failure to keep our fears proportional. In 2015, 51 percent of Americans feared becoming a victim of terrorism even though only 0.0000001 of a percent of Americans were victims of terrorism. Allow me to ask, if breast cancer only killed 0.0000001 percent of women rather than the 1 in 37 that it does … would we even have pink ribbons?

I witness the movie theater phenomenon almost every other day. In my neighborhood there is this market owned by people different than me. It is frequented by people different than me and people different from me tend to loiter around outside … mostly after school lets them out. The people who own the market work hard to make it work. The people who frequent the market are neighbors, the kids who loiter around outside are just kids. And yet, I know those who have told me they won’t go into this market because they are afraid. They are afraid because the people who work there may be speaking another language, the neighbors who shop there are often challenged in some fashion, and those kids hanging out after school … they’re black. If those I know could keep their fear in proportion, their world would grow and they would find, as I have found, that the only thing those people who work there and speak another language want from me is my patronage. The only thing those who shop there want from is to not cut in line. The only thing the kids who hang out there after school want from me is to be an adult. If I were to allow my fears to morph into cowardice…I would never know this.

In 1972 when I was 15 years old, I was traveling unaccompanied from Minnesota back to Kansas via Greyhound bus. I had a long layover in Kansas City and nothing to do but wait around the depot. I was approached by a man, loafers, a sweater vest, manicured hair … a Ted Bundy looking sort of fellow. He wanted to take me home. I got away from him and looked around the depot for someplace safe. Being a kid, I went into the men’s restroom. Another well-dressed man approached me — another problematic situation. But this man grabbed me. I got away. I paced around the depot looking for someplace safe. I saw a group of five or six young black men. They wore goatees, black pants and black boots, army field jackets and berets … Black Panthers … intimidating-looking men. I pushed my way into the center of them. After an initial comment or two about being a crazy white boy, they saw I was visibly shaken and asked why. I told them … then I pointed out one of the two men who pursuing me. Two of them went after him. The others told me I had nothing to worry about, that they would make sure I got safely on my bus. Don’t know what they did to him.

All these men, the white, well-dressed unsavory fellows, the Black Panthers, taught me a lesson I have carried my whole life … that we often fear the wrong things, the wrong people … and that we can’t judge a beer by its bottle. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at