It’s Miller Time
During much of the 1950s and ’60s, advertising agencies that handled beer accounts were saddled with a unique dilemma. The average beer drinker (the guy who was unflatteringly dubbed “Joe Six-Pack” by beer marketers), perceived little difference between one domestic brand of beer and another. In the consumer’s mind, all beer was made from essentially the same ingredients, underwent the same brewing process, came in basically the same types of packages, cost more or less the same, etc. For ad agencies and copywriters, this made for relatively few “selling points.” A beer’s flavor, more often than not, was the only source of distinction. Thus, flavor became the underlying theme, in one form or another, of virtually all beer commercials.
Three days in January 1971 changed all that. Beer distributors from around the country converged on Boca Raton, FL, for Miller Brewing Co.’s national sales meeting. The focal point of the gathering was Miller’s launch of a nationwide advertising campaign centered on the slogan, “If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer.” A new genre of beer commercial was about to be born.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris had just acquired full ownership of Miller Brewing during the previous year. The company had big plans for Miller, hoping to apply the same advertising strategies to the beer industry that it had used to propel Marlboro cigarettes to the top position within the tobacco industry. (The company even test-marketed “Marlboro Beer” but ultimately shelved it.)
Television, of course, would be Miller’s primary means of assault. TV spots for Miller High Life bore a strikingly similar look and feel to Philip Morris’ venerable Marlboro Man commercials. The new ads invariably depicted tough and rugged he-men drinking Miller Beer–not because they enjoyed its delicate balance of flavors, not because they fancied the easy-to-open bottle, but because they worked hard all day and, dammit, now it was Miller Time.
The “you earned it” theme was a complete departure from the tired old claims of two decades worth of beer commercials. Number-one-selling Budweiser jumped on the bandwagon with the tagline, “For all you do, this Bud’s for you.” For the first time, beer ads were not about the beer, but about the beer drinker. Joe Six-Pack ate it up, and beer advertising moved headlong into a new era.
The Lite Brigade
One other important development came from the Miller sales meeting in Boca Raton. At the time, however, few–including Miller itself–realized the ultimate significance. Brewery president William Kostecke told the crowd that, after years of producing only one brand (High Life), Miller would begin experimenting with “secondary brands.” Barely three years later, Lite Beer from Miller took the industry by storm, forging an entirely new beer category.
Television was perhaps never more instrumental in the launch of a new brand of beer than it was for Lite. Introducing a low-calorie beer, after all, was no small gamble for Miller. Nay-sayers argued that men–who, naturally, comprise the bulk of the beer-consuming public–not only had no interest in counting calories but would likely regard Lite as a “sissy beer.” This was the challenge faced by McCann-Erickson, Miller’s ad agency. The solution: find the toughest, manliest guys out there and put them on TV touting the merits of Lite Beer from Miller. The slogan: “Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less.”
The first Lite commercials aired in 1973 and starred the likes of football greats Matt Snell and Ernie Stautner and mystery writer Mickey Spillane. Over the course of the next decade, the company shot more than 80 commercials, and the roster of “Lite All-Stars” boasted nearly 40 celebs and sports icons. John Madden, Billy Martin, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith and Bob Uecker were just a few of the Lite regulars. Boog Powell once commented, “You make one Lite commercial, it’s like then everyone forgets you played ball for 20 years.”
Of course, it was Lite’s never-ending debate-”Tastes Great, Less Filling”–that earned the ads their place in history. But it wasn’t until 1976, three full years after Lite commercials first aired, that the gimmick had fully taken shape. Tommy Heinsohn, the notoriously combative Boston Celtics coach, and hard-nosed NBA official Mendy Rudolph squared off on the issue in a barroom scene. After Heinsohn refused to agree that Lite was, first and foremost, less filling, Rudolph threw his thumb in the air and screamed, “You’re out of the bar.”
“Less Filling” was McCann-Erickson’s clever way of putting a macho spin on the low calorie issue. If Lite was less filling, that meant you could drink more of it. Commercials invariably showed the performers sitting in front of a table loaded with empties, though the Federal Trade Commission mandated that the actor say something like, “Oh, I’m not saying I drank all these by myself.” Nevertheless, the implication was clear. And so was Lite’s success. Between 1973 and 1978, Miller sales exploded from just under 7 million barrels to over 31 million barrels–the most dramatic period of expansion ever recorded by a beer maker.
TV: The Brewer’s Battleground
The phenomenal growth of Miller and the other nationally shipping brewers during the 1970s came, of course, entirely at the expensive of the small, regional brewer. Any hopes of protecting one’s home market from the invasion of the nationals meant doing bloody battle. Television, far more than any other medium, was the theater of engagement. The regional brewers’ fight for their very survival made for some interesting beer commercials.
When the national brewers advanced on Erie, PA, the Erie Brewing Co.–makers of Koehler Beer–resorted to tongue-in-cheek threats aimed at local beer drinkers. The somewhat morbid TV spots cautioned consumers to buy only Koehler, lest they incur the wrath of long-dead brewery founder Jackson Koehler. The series of commercials showed a ghostly “Uncle Jackson” sabotaging golf games, ruining backyard barbecues, and generally wreaking havoc in the lives of beer drinkers until they vowed allegiance to Koehler Beer. Each commercial ended with the menacing tagline, “Uncle Jackson’s Watching,” followed by a crash of thunder.
Commercials for Burger Beer of Cincinnati took the national brewers head on, knocking their slogans and million-dollar ad campaigns. The tagline was, “Don’t be bamboozled by out-of-town beers.” Commercials included a jingle with lyrics, “Some beers come from Milwaukee; Some come from over the sea; But I’m not bamboozled, cuz my beer is Burger; My beer’s from the same place as me.”
Ortlieb’s Beer of Philadelphia hoped to counter the mega-breweries by putting a neighborly face on their beer. Commercials featured amiable real-life brew master Joe Ortlieb addressing consumers directly, capped with the friendly slogan, “Try Joe’s Beer.” In one spot, Joe tells customers, “In the beer business, when you bump another brand out of a bar, it’s called ‘knocking off a spigot.’ Those big guys can knock off my spigots, but they can’t knock off my taste.”
In the end, Koehler, Burger, Ortlieb’s and countless others did not win their struggle. The typical small brewer simply could not match the large advertising budgets of his national rivals. Even today, virtually every televised sporting event is dotted with beer commercials, proving that television remains a key weapon in the big brewers’ arsenal.