Lite goes smug, hip, but results fall flat

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Advertiser: Miller Brewing Co.
Agency: Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis
Ad Review rating: 2 stars

Miller Lite's new advertising from Fallon McElligott is defiantly post-modern. It tries to cultivate young beer drinkers by lampooning itself and ostentatiously eschewing dubious positive statements about the brand. It commands your attention to announce how absurd it is.

Yes, this world-weary drollness would seem to be the apotheosis of anti-advertising. But it isn't really. It's just advertising, a smug, masturbatory sort of advertising--about which more presently. First, some history:

Miller Lite owes its success to the convergence of simple demographics and simple carbohydrates. Just as the guts of beer-swilling baby boomers started to expand, along came Lite's alluring promise of "Tastes great! Less filling!"

It happened that Lite didn't taste great; it was watery. And "less filling" was a euphemism for less alcohol. But it was a compromise lumpy boomers could live with. Through years of funny ads from Backer & Spielvogel featuring self-deprecating ex-jocks, Lite became America's No. 2 beer, destined it seemed even to challenge Budweiser.

Lite, alas, never made it. In 1990, sales peaked at 19.9 million barrels, for a 10.3% share. Meantime, Miller and its new agency, Leo Burnett USA, determined that ex-jocks were no longer relevant. They repositioned the brand not as the first choice in light beers, but the first choice in beers, period, for the fun-loving young generation.

Everybeer, you might say, for everyman.

No such luck. By last year, shipments were down to 15.9 million barrels and market share only 8.5%--a slide partly attributable to the demographic fact that boomers are long past prime guzzling age. But it's also true that younger drinkers brought up in a hardbody culture have come to prefer light beers themselves.

And the one they prefer most is Bud Light.

Maybe that's because Anheuser-Busch singlemindedly supported its brand, while Miller depleted resources chasing transitory niches. But there was also the advertising itself. Pursuing much the same creative strategy as Burnett, DDB Needham Worldwide came up with catch phrase after memorable Bud Light catch phrase.

Yes, they did. And people loved it, man.

Losing ground and losing hope, Miller turned to one of the world's most creative shops. And Fallon has responded not by trying to rediscover the essence of the brand, nor by finding something relevant to say to the consumer, but by simply trying to imbue Lite with more personality than the competition. The result is ads about the ad-making process: "This is Dick. Dick is a creative superstar, and the man behind the advertising you are about to witness. We gave Dick a six-pack of Miller Lite and some money and asked him to come up with a commercial for Miller Lite . . ."

Only he didn't. He came up with some inside jokes, some amusingly dated graphics and several self-indulgent commercials about Dick. The idea is to flatter viewers with how hip and sophisticated and mediawise they are. But here's some news:

Viewers aren't, particularly. Some, maybe, but certainly not most of them. And beer advertising is a most-of-them proposition--including a large number of slobs who are still chuckling at Bud's Super Bowl caveman spots. These are not rarefied tastes, and they are better served with substance, not faux nihilism.

Ergo, we advise a complete turnabout: Less taste, great filling.

Copyright January 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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