The Consumer Republic: No-Man’s-Land

If the buyer’s expectations aren’t met when customer and product finally meet, it doesn’t matter how hip the spots are.
Rest in peace, Dick the copywriter.
Last week, Miller Brewing Co. confirmed that it was going to “evolve” its advertising for Miller Lite, a polite way of saying that Dick is dead. The ad idol clipped from a high school yearbook not only failed to boost purchase intent among beer buyers but also presided over a 2.6 percent sales volume decline. He’ll join Mr. K in the afterworld, somewhere this side of rock ‘n’ roll heaven, where award-winning but ineffectual ad icons are exiled once they’ve been done in by the bottom line.
One can hear the delighted chorus of “I told you so” all over adland. The debut of the Fallon McElligott campaign in 1997 was greeted with so much indignation from advertising’s self-appointed standard bearers that the client hurriedly called a news conference to reiterate its support of Dick. His philosophy, as memorably explained in an early execution, was to come up with anything entertaining and eye-catching, stick it between two logos and voilˆ, you’ve got a commercial. To critics, this was advertising at it most nihilistic. To Miller, it was just good target marketing.
The target, of course, was the South Park crowd of twentysomething men. Aimed at the fun-loving 10-year-old lurking within every legal-age male drinker, the ads–particularly early on–managed to be world-weary, dumb, innocent and tasteless. On occasion, they were even funny. Yet the spots’ gleeful vulgarity and self-mockery were an affront to every pro-social rationale the ad industry has ever used to justify itself.
Also headed for extinction are the downbeat blue-collar ads for Miller Genuine Draft, which never quite inspired the hostility that met copywriter Dick, though they were just as ineffectual (domestic sales of all Miller brands are down 4.2 percent). Perhaps that’s because in Wieden & Kennedy’s work, one can discern a glimmer of an idea about the brand. The question Miller’s brands face today is: How do you sell a blue-collar beer in a “classless” information age when the working class is considered passƒ? The MGD work at least took a stab at the problem. The Seinfeldian Miller Lite campaign, on the other hand, infuriated traditionalists because it was designed to be about nothing.
To the campaign’s many fans (too few of them beer drinkers), selling and nothingness were its genius. The truth is that the Miller brands are not that tasty, particularly to taste buds primed by honey lagers and bitter ales. Miller is the Wonder Bread of beers, a bland mass product competing in a world of micro-palates. You could spend $100 million-plus telling consumers the stuff tastes great and no one would believe you–certainly not the twentysomething guys upon whom the future market share of any beer brand depends. So, the reasoning goes, the less said to the audience about the brew in the bottle the better. Let them drink ads.
Alas, consumers have yet to reach that pinnacle of spirituality in which the aura generated
by an ad becomes a sufficient substitute for the product. The soul of a brand must ultimately answer to the demands of the flesh.
If the buyer’s expectations aren’t confirmed when customer and product finally meet, it does not matter how hip the spots are. To wring enjoyment out of Miller Time, one didn’t have to actually pop open a beer. It was enough to consume the ads alone. This is why, to his fans, the demise of Dick is less like the end of an ad campaign and more like the canceling of a favorite TV show. Dick’s naysayers also criticized selling a beer brewed for the masses as if it were a skateboard or a computer game. “Edgy,” the word most often used to describe the Miller Lite campaign, is actually a euphemism for ads targeted at males between 18 and 35. The Lite campaign didn’t just focus on the cool-conscious 21-29 demo; it deliberately excluded everyone else.
As the campaign’s creatives never tired of explaining, they wanted the beer-belly crowd to scratch their heads in confusion at the ads. The alienation of an older audience was negative proof they were speaking in the target’s native tongue. Conversely, it was positive proof that the marketing had abandoned huge swathes of customers in favor of entry-level drinkers who, though they liked the ads, failed to boost market share. Compare this to the frogs and lizards of the other Wonder Bread beer: Budweiser. Its ads, also about nothing, offer Everyguy humor that complements an Everyguy brand.
There is a school of advertising at work today that is in active rebellion against ads that sell. By that criterion, the Miller Lite campaign surely deserved the award it won at Cannes this year. If only Miller Lite were a fragrance made to daub behind a pierced ear, the frat-party aura of Miller Time might have done the trick. Unfortunately, consumers were asked to drink the stuff. So long, Dick.