Madison + Vine: High Life spots to spawn sitcom

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As marketers grapple with ways to counter the diminishing effectiveness of the :30 spot, Miller Brewing Co. is exploring the possibility of turning its popular High Life ad campaign into a TV show.

The brewer's ad shop Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., production house Radical Media, New York, and director Errol Morris are working to develop an Archie Bunker-like TV series based on the 5-year-old campaign for Miller High Life beer that features ironic voice-over musings on the simple pleasures of the blue collar life.

"The High Life" is one of several titles under consideration for the show, according to Mr. Morris, who told Advertising Age in an interview last week that he would like to begin production on the series as early as February. The show is being created and written by the Wieden creative team responsible for the award-winning beer campaign-Jeff Kling, copywriter, Jeff Williams, art director, and Jeff Selis, producer. The project is in an early stage of development and is not yet attached to any network.

"Let's say it's in the fermentation stage, prior to financing," said Jon Kamen, executive producer and partner at Radical. "These things take a little time to brew." Mr. Kamen and Mr. Morris hope Miller will finance the project. Bill Davenport, executive producer, Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment, characterized the project as being in the early stages of development and said other extensions beyond TV projects are being considered.

"We are in the midst of creative planning and we are always asking our agencies to present new ideas and concepts," said Bob Mikulay exec VP-marketing, Miller. Carl Cahill, High Life senior associate brand manager, said he hasn't discussed specifics of the project and that nothing has been approved. Based on its spending this year, Miller certainly would have the funds to finance the project if it decides to move forward. Through September, Miller has spent just $7.7 million in measured media on the brand, not even half of the $19.6 million Miller spent in 2002. Miller did up its spending in fourth quarter sports events, such as the World Series.

simple pleasures

The High Life campaign spots are vignettes shot in grainy images-often on Super 8 cameras-with an almost faux-manly voice-over by Doug Jeffers that extols the simple and less-than-fashionable pleasures of bacon, powdered doughnuts, grease, duct tape and, of course, Miller High Life. In one famous execution, the frame is filled with a bulky man's naked hairy chest while the voice-over asks, "Is your name Sally? Sally the salad eater? No? You're a High Life man, and you don't care who knows it. You're not scared to enjoy Miller Time."

"Our show will use the voice-over," Mr. Morris said, adding it will be produced in hour-long episodes shot on location around the United States.

love from hipsters

The spots have resonated, surprisingly, with a niche audience of 20-something hipsters, and have helped stem a 20-year slide in sales. Since the appearance five years ago of the High Life Man, sales have recovered and High Life has maintained its No. 9 position in the list of top 10 beer brands.

Mr. Cahill acknowledged the sensitivity of how a TV show might affect the underground success the brand has enjoyed among 20-somethings. "We're debating it right now," he said. "Whatever we do, we don't want to compromise the integrity of the brand and what it stands for or risk alienating younger consumers who are attracted to [High Life's] nostalgic qualities and timeless values." Although 21- to 27-year-olds aren't the primary target for the ads, the percent of volume among that group has more than doubled in the past three years, he said.

contributing: kate macarthur, alice z. cuneo

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