Slate's Ad Report Card: Miller Beer Aims Higher

A new TV spot for Miller High Life focus on historic stills and classical icons.

A new TV spot for Miller High Life focus on historic stills and classical icons. Miller Brewing hide caption

itoggle caption Miller Brewing

Slate advertising critic Seth Stevenson looks at a beer campaign that defies convention. With no silly jokes, scantily clad women or bumbling beer hounds, the Miller Brewing Company's new ads feature nostalgic old photos and emotive music to take the high road.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The business of advertising now. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, is intrigued by a new series of beer ads. Beer ads? Yes, interesting beer ads.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

For the past decade or more, we've grown accustomed to seeing insipid 30-second jokes masquerading as commercials. Beer ads became synonymous with chucklehead humor, and the ads all became indistinguishable, so much so that, at one point, it seemed every single beer ad featured football referees. Enter a new series of ads from Miller High Life.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: When I look back on everything, I see over 100 years of our incredible history.

STEVENSON: It's a series of old still photos which shimmer to life through computer effects. We see fedora-wearing men in a seedy bar, a couple dancing in a juke joint, Ray Charles.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: I was there when the first keg was tapped. I've seen the golden moments that we savor.

STEVENSON: There's a ticker tape parade and backyard barbecues. The song is spare but hopeful, and a woman talks about those special moments that make up our lives.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: I'm the girl in the moon, and I want to tell you everything I know.

STEVENSON: The last few shots reveal that this girl in the moon is a corporate logo. She's found on the neck of each bottle of Miller High Life. The thing about this spot is that it's laughably formulaic. Its recipe for nostalgia includes a basket of familiar ingredients: one, the sequence of iconic snapshots; two, the wildly overused music; three, the medley of vague airy musings about savoring `the moments.' This voice-over script is just a tribute to an entity.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: It's you. Your life is made up of a history of moments. It's a scrapbook packed with the photos of your life.

STEVENSON: And on and on, but amazingly, I think, the ad works simply because it looks like no other beer ad that's out right now. The girl in the moon is a third wave beer ad strategy. It's neither a sitcom gag nor a straightforward ode to the quality of the beer. This is an ad about feelings.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man: Any cook worth his apron knows that when you sop up the bacon grease with a paper towel, you also sop a good reason for eating bacon.

STEVENSON: You may recall the previous High Life campaign which featured the High Life man. These ads, directed by Errol Morris, sang the praises of the 1950s vintage man's man, the kind of fellow who knows how to park a boat trailer.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man: A man wastes nothing. The only thing that should be absorbing that golden flavor is his lucky mouth. That's the high life. That's Miller time.

STEVENSON: The spots were blue-collar and seemed aimed at an older generation. If they held any appeal for under-35s, it was only as an ironic homage to a defunct sort of masculinity.

The girl in the moon skews younger than the High Life man and, yes, girlier. She's a little more inclusive of people who have never worked in a steel mill, yet she remains down to earth. Nothing flashy going on with this beer. High Life's brand manger, Tom McLoughlin, claims that the millennial generation, the generation that, not coincidentally has just reached drinking age, tends to value low-irony pitches. It's always a dangerous game to guess at how ironic the kids are being these days. Are they drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon to be funny? Do they actually just like it? Are they not even sure anymore?

But Miller's on pretty safe ground when it talks about High Life's hundred-year past and being there through these different American eras. I also think it's smart to reintroduce the girl herself, a forgotten century-old brand icon. Apparently she's been on the bottles almost all this time. Who knew?

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: I've been there for the glory and I've been there for when it hurts most.

STEVENSON: She has an old-timey, innocent appeal and she suggests a brand with a noble past, a brand that's been there for the times, that nurture the scenes, that fill up the scrapbook, that savors the moments that make up our lives. I give the girl and the campaign a B+.

CHADWICK: Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He reviews ads for the online magazine Slate.

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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