A Battle Royale

Miller takes on the King of Beers, to great comedic effect

With its generic convention setting, screaming crowds wearing buttons and straw hats and waving posters, and “Hail to the Chief”-like music, this Miller work, a parody of a political campaign, at first seems kind of corny and old-school. And those are two words not normally associated with the output of Wieden + Kennedy.

Except, as with many things political, this campaign about a campaign is trickier and less obvious than it seems on its face. First, of course, this being a presidential election year, it gets points for topicality: Miller is running for president—of beers. (Never mentioned specifically, the biggest insider joke is that the fight in the beer world as well as the larger one is against an august member of the Busch/Bush dynasty.)

This setup proves to be a big and clever idea, and within it, Miller manages to take some funny stabs at its marketing-colossus opponent, Anheuser-Busch. While the idea of co-opting an election theme is not new in advertising (even Snickers did it last time around), no beer campaign in memory has used a faux candidacy to go directly head-to-head with Budweiser, so to speak.

The King of Beers, of course, has been consistent in its iconography and message for the last 30 years, and that’s why it can be so easily attacked. The A-B messages have always centered on the label, the Clydesdales (who, in their grandeur, began to stand for America itself) and the “KOB” slogan. A-B has been so smart and recognizable about image, in fact, that it’s even been able to make fun of itself (the dog on the fire truck, the donkey who wanted to be a Clydesdale, etc.).

Miller, which has been all over the place in recent years, is going negative on Big Bud with this premise: Why should any beer have a king? This is virgin territory and an inherently funny question—exactly the kind of thing you might ponder when drunk. (Wars have been fought over less, although tea drinking does not have the same effect.)

The candidate’s mouthpiece and human form, comic Bob Odenkirk, is one of the creators and stars of the cult mid-’90s HBO series Mr. Show, which has been called America’s answer to Monty Python and SCTV. Even for those who’ve never seen the series, Odenkirk’s fierce gifts as a stand-up and mimic are immediately apparent. (One of his characters on Mr. Show was a childish, Strom Thurmond-like senator, which was hysterical.)

Three commercials have been released so far, and several more will break in the next few months. The centerpiece is our man arguing that the monarchical opposition “never got the memo. This is America! America is a democracy! Break it down: demo-crassy!” Two spots are set at a debate. In one, Odenkirk actually tries to make selling points about Miller Lite. (Half the carbs of Bud Lite, one-third less than Coors Light, etc.) The moderator keeps cutting him off with a buzzer, saying, “Miller, time.” (“Miller time” was an actual slogan hundreds of years ago.) Our candidate bristles at being buzzed and asks, “Whose pocket are you in, anyway?” He goes on to call the process a “travesty and a sham and a mockery,” in fact a “travishamockery!” The moderator tells him, “No making up words.”

The verbal interaction is pretty funny (some of it was improvised), but so is the big picture: The Miller man is standing on one side of the stage behind a podium and on the other side, at the other podium, is a lone horse, a silent Clydesdale. This makes us realize that the way Bud has choreographed and lit and shot them over the years, a team of horses clomping along looks fancy and regal, and sometimes even sends shivers. By contrast, one horse standing alone at a press conference looks, well, more pitiful than powerful. (Bud’s notorious farting horse of the Super Bowl, a bigger misstep than the wardrobe malfunction, also adds to the layers of reference.)

The man vs. horse race is even clearer in “Vision for the Future,” the other spot set at the debate. The Miller guy holds up a Lite bottle and a Genuine Draft (and even makes a joke about the failure of clear beer) and argues in their favor. “Why won’t my opponent debate this issue?” he asks, outraged. “Is it because he’s a horse or is it because he has blinders on? No peripheral vision!”

Miller continues to juggle numerous agencies, and each executes on the same “Choice” theme. (“Dominoes” and “Epidemic,” both much more formidable productions, were created by Y&R in Chicago.) All of them are fresh and watchable, but this argues harder from the opening line than the other, artier spots. Is it too inside-the-beerway? I think everybody recognizes “The King of Beer,” and loudly screaming the Miller name gets across the idea of the lower carbs and better taste without resorting to the saline-pouch solution. (Take that, “Catfight”!) So that gets my vote. But meanwhile, given Budweiser’s new no-sex, no genital-biting rule, it’s going to be quite a horse race.