“A Most Congenial Group”: Miller Lite TV Ads, 1974 – 1991

Exhibit / September 18, 2019



Object Name: Miller Lite TV advertising
Maker and Year: McCann-Erickson, 1974-1991
Object Type: Television advertising campaign
Image Source: Left to right: Miller-Coors, Brookston Beer Bulletin, Royal Card Review; playlist of Miller Lite ads available on YouTube (James Ward)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The post-World War II boom in American chemical production and research filtered down very quickly into the consumer market, notably into agriculture (pesticides) and food and drink production (preservatives). Food chemistry researchers also sought to provide no-sugar alternatives for America’s rapidly growing diabetic population. With artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and cyclamate entering the soft drink industry in the 1950s and early ’60s with products like Diet Rite and Tab, other beverage industries sought to produce lower-calorie options for their customers. Chemist Joseph Owades, working for Rheingold Breweries in New York City, broke apart beer’s long carbohydrate chains to produce the world’s first “light” beer in 1967. Marketed nearly exclusively to diabetics, it went nowhere. Thus, the development of “light” beer came with a commensurate marketing challenge: how to persuade the traditionally masculine beer-drinking audience to try a lower-calorie version of their favorite brew. In essence, the lab wizards had to accede to the ad wizards.

By the early 1970s, the Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin had been purchased by a pair of industrial conglomerates, ending up in the hands of cigarette giant Philip Morris. The mostly Midwestern brewers that survived American Prohibition—founded largely by 19th century German immigrants who had situated their companies geographically close to grains and hops—became Cold War-era America’s nationally-distributed and heavily industrialized “macrobreweries.” Most were family owned and operated; Miller’s original owners, who had operated the brewery since 1855, were one of the first to divest themselves of the business and turn brewing over to outsiders. With the rapidly-expanding conglomeration came Miller’s acquisition of Meister Bräu in Chicago, one of the many breweries that had, since Rheingold’s introduction of Gablinger’s light beer, engaged Dr. Owades to help them develop their own light brand.

The stage was set—a massive brewery with a new light beer brand to market. But how to market it? Former athletes had always been popular spokesmen for beer, and that kind of undiluted macho might help light beer make its breakthrough. Ad agency McCann Erickson worked on a series of ads for the new brand, “Miller Lite,” in 1974. They starred recently-retired New York Jet Matt Snell, hard-boiled mystery writer Mickey Spillane, and jazz drumming legend Buddy Rich. The ads went relatively unnoticed until McCann Erickson started using multiple sports and public figures in one ad, simulating the raucous yet “congenial” atmosphere of the target audience’s neighborhood bar.

The campaign was a massive success: the development of ads where opposing camps chanted their favorite aspect of Miller Lite—the “Less filling!/Tastes great!” argument—presented a tagline even punchier than the one introduced by Snell in 1974: “Everything you always wanted in a beer… and less.” Soon, popular personalities emerged in the ads: tough-guy NFL defensive players Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus poked fun at their public image with a pair of ads that imagined them playing the “refined” sports of tennis and polo. Former football coach John Madden, well into his post-football announcing career, acknowledged his reputation for crazy behavior on the Oakland Raider sidelines. “Mr. Baseball” Bob Uecker, a former middling catcher for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves who’d moved into announcing locally in Milwaukee and for network broadcasts after his retirement, presented a self-deprecating character in the Miller Lite ads that was a huge hit. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield, arguably at his career height in the late ’70s, became a regular fixture in the ads; his one-liner based humor was perfect for a thirty or sixty-second spot. By the 1980s, the ads became a veritable who’s who of sports and pop culture figures; half the fun of the commercials for most viewers became spotting all the cameos.

Arguably the “Woodstock” of the Miller Lite campaign is the minute-long “Miller Lite Open” spot from 1986 featuring Madden hosting and all kinds of wacky stunts, including Uecker driving a shot underwater and Dangerfield one-upping his Al Czervik character from Caddyshack. As the ads became less homey and more openly cartoonish, their appeal began to diminish and the campaign itself faded away in the early ’90s, the victim of changing tastes in alcoholic beverages, advertising, and sports fandom.

Ultimately, even after taking into account how silly it got near the end, the Miller Lite campaign humanized larger-than-life sports figures: they were the kind of guys who might be on the barstool next to you. The campaign can trace its descendants into the 1990s and beyond; for example, ESPN’s wildly successful series of ads for SportsCenter, imagining professional athletes (and sports mascots) in ordinary office jobs at the ESPN studios, owes a lot to the barroom antics of Uecker, Madden, and Dangerfield. The Miller Lite ads had the faults of most advertising of their time, of course: all of them focused on male pitchmen, with women functioning as either decoration or stereotypical “dumb blonde” comic relief (although Lee Meredith, acting as Mickey Spillane’s ditzy moll, gives every spot her all), and the comic tone overall is often broad and even corny to modern eyes. But these ads were at the forefront of changing the staid, boring world of television advertising in the 1970s; along with classic comic campaigns like “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” and the meta-commercial of “That’s a spicy meatball” for Alka Seltzer, they turned the TV airwaves into a venue where the commercials were often more entertaining than the actual programs.

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