A PUZZLING DECISION SIGNALS PM IS TIRED OF MILLER MESS

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I wonder if Philip Morris stockholders realize their Miller Brewing subsidiary has ceded the beer business to Anheuser-Busch and that PM is getting ready to dump the whole mess? Miller's revival of its classic "Tastes great . . . less filling" campaign can seamlessly be adopted by the new owner-and the ads will have built-in wholesaler approval.

That's how it looks to me. Tipoff to the move is Miller's seemingly inexplicable decision to reappoint the ad agency for Miller Lite after squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on an ill-conceived and under-performing (not to mention totally stupid and offensive) ad campaign for the brew.

Maybe because Miller is such a small part of Philip Morris' business-6% of revenues and 4% of profits in 1997-or maybe because Wall Street analysts rarely factor in advertising as a reason to downgrade (or upgrade) a stock, PM continues to be recommended enthusiastically by brokerage firms. Its stock price is currently midway between its high and low of last year, not bad considering the federal government is threatening to sue the tobacco companies.

Come to think of it, maybe it's holding its own because some astute investors perceive that PM is getting ready to dump one of its only losers.

So it's clear that Miller's strange move to retain the Lite agency is simply a holding action until it decides what to do with its problem operation. After all, why go through the process of hiring and training another agency when the new Miller owner will probably give the assignment to one of its own agencies?

What Miller said was the reason for retaining the incumbent agency is complete palaver, of course. A Miller spokeswoman told The New York Times the decision came after "a thorough and disciplined evaluation concerning the long-term vitality and performance" of the Miller Lite brand-which, believe it or not, included consumer research. These guys spared no expense to use every new-fangled marketing tool their crack marketing team could envision.

What they no doubt discovered was that Miller Lite has plenty of vitality and performance if somebody else owned it.

They might have a point there. Although Miller Lite has been severely damaged, there's still a lot of residual good will toward the brand that could be revived by bringing back the great "Tastes great . . . less filling" ad theme that pitted jocks who liked Miller for its taste against those who drank it for lower calorie intake. Those ads were not only entertaining and amusing, but they also supplied a convincing rationale for buying the brew.

I believe a new Miller Lite owner-Coor's is the most logical buyer-would find the fast-growing Bud Light to be vulnerable, even though the brand racked up double-digit percentage sales gains for the sixth year in a row and is challenging flagship Budweiser for sales leadership at Anheuser-Busch.

Bud Light's commercials are amusing and enjoyable, but they don't give you any particular reason to buy it, either. Sure, I think it's clever the guy keeps thinking of ways to keep his roommate from getting his hands on a Bud Light; but why is that a reason to drink it, other than you want something you can't have?

If Miller or its new owner were to fashion ads for Miller Lite that were equally amusing and clever but also provided some sort of concrete reason to buy it over Bud Light (no matter how flimsy), they'd have a fighting chance of winning back sales. That's when the "Tastes great . . . less filling" ads could come in. But, at any rate, don't you think the beer companies are overlooking a bet when they don't even mention their light beers don't make you feel so full?

Miller's sale would be good for Philip Morris and good for the new owner. The only losers in this scenario are the ad agencies that pitched the Miller Lite

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