Creative: Of Beer And Brain Candy

After years of declining sales, Miller Lite takes a good, long walk on the wild side.
Dick paid off a Texas steer with caseloads of brew. Dick discovered true love between a woman and her aluminum robot. Dick set a giant, vengeful beaver after a group of woodland settlers. Still, 50-plus spots into Miller Lite’s outrageous campaign, Dick–notably Fallon McElligott copywriter Linus Karlsson and art director Paul Malmstrom–promises: “People haven’t seen anything yet.”
A year and half ago, the advertising industry was jarred out of its comfort zone when Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis introduced a campaign centered around Dick, the “creative superstar” pictured in a ’70s-style yearbook photo. But this new Miller Time for the ’90s wasn’t exactly a stereotypical beer moment. Yes, there would be bikini-clad babes romping around sandy beaches, sophomoric gags and even talking animals–healthy staples of American beer advertising. But they were filtered through a slightly different lens.
Karlsson and Malmstrom, natives of Stockholm, were weaned on the comedy of Swedish television and reruns of America’s golden TV past–Baretta, Dallas and Starsky & Hutch. With a sense of humor more akin to Monty Python than Dick Van Dyke, the first Miller Lite commercial in the Dick campaign was based on a clip often seen on Swedish public television. A well-dressed man walks through tall vegetation as the camera follows. When he steps onto a road, he’s wearing clothing from the waist up, and a Miller Lite bottle cap covers his bare bottom. In another early spot, a magician plays a shell game with two mice and a Miller Lite bottle. Without explanation, the mice appear under his assistant’s armpits. But, to her relief, his next trick produces a disposable razor.
Critics took sides. Entertainment vs. advertising became the latest rage, and the Miller Lite campaign only helped fan the flames. On one coast, Lee Clow defended his vision of the Nissan branding campaign and his intentions for Mr. K. Three thousand miles away, Miller executives–just a few weeks into the introduction of two new branding campaigns for Miller Genuine Draft via Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and Miller Lite via Fallon McElligott–were discussing (and defending) their new advertising strategies at a New York City press conference.
Turning the surprise and disdain of the new commercials to its advantage, Miller Lite introduced a series of spots that discussed the polarization between viewers, positioning it as a battle between generations. In one ad, a brewery worker and his son disagree about the Dick spots. Others discuss the fine ingredients in the beer, the hops and the brewing process and point out the “less filling” advantage to drinking Miller Lite, the noticeable lack of beer gut. In still others, Dick turns the camera over to the Miller brewery workers to make their own ads. The commercials almost look and sound like what a TV viewer has grown to expect from beer ads. But Dick is never too far away, always introducing and ending each spot with his (and in certain ads, his cohorts’) signature.
When the assignment first came to the agency during the initial new-business pitch, “fear struck my heart,” says Mary Van Note, group planning director at Fallon. “It’s one thing to discuss how to jump-start a brand. It’s quite another to turn around one of the biggest beers in America,” she says. “In a lot of ways, the ads are traditional, with the Miller logo at the beginning and end of every spot. It’s something right out of 1950s advertising.”
Traditional is not a word the Swedes, as they are known around Fallon and Miller, often use. “This campaign wants to have sex with your brain,” Karlsson says. “Some people like it a little wilder and some just want to hug. Of course, there will always be people out there with a constant headache.”
A headache barely describes Miller Brewing’s hangover concerning its flagship brand. Representing 38 percent of the brewery’s beer business, Miller Lite, once the definitive leader in the light-beer category (thanks to ads that showed former athletes taking sides in the “Less filling, tastes great” debate), had been steadily losing share to Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light. While Miller Lite represented 33 percent of the light-beer market in 1990 (when Bud Light had 19 percent), by 1997, Lite’s share had dropped to 22 percent. Bud Light, meanwhile, topped 30 percent.
As the Lite brand continued to struggle, Miller Brewing’s advertising strategies were confused and ever-changing. Numerous agency and branding initiatives signaled a company reaching in too many directions. At the end of 1996, Miller hired creative hot shop Fallon McElligott to work on Miller Lite and Wieden & Kennedy to handle Miller Genuine Draft. With armpit mice and urinating cowboys, Miller Lite advertising displayed signs of going off the deep end. What some viewed as strategic bravery, others saw as advertising suicide.
“In trying to connect with humor on that level, instead of throwing the hand grenade, they’ve swallowed it,” says one longtime beer account executive. “What you’ve got is a fairly desperate client and an agency that thinks it can do no wrong. That is a recipe for either brilliance or disaster.”
Despite the fact that the light-beer category had been steadily growing, Miller Lite’s sales had been steadily dropping for years, especially in the most critical group, the 21-28-year-old male beer drinker. What had once been a defining moment for Miller Brewing in the middle 1980s, Miller Time was now a generalization about drinking beer, and the Lite brand was invisible. “We found it was, like, ‘Hey, it’s 5 o’clock. It’s Miller Time!’ and they would go to the bar with their friends and have a Bud,” says Van Note. “Miller Time had become generic and not interesting anymore to men 21-28. In contrast, Bud had built a neat personality for itself.”
In order to restake a claim on Miller Time, Fallon went for the jugular. “We wanted something that would shake up the system to say it’s not the same old Miller Lite. We wanted to jump-start the brand. You are not going to have much of an impact with subtle messages,” says Mike Johnson, brand director on Miller Lite. “We wanted to redefine the brand and do it quickly.”
Miller spent more than $140 million advertising the Lite brand last year, up from $100 million the year before. In addition to advertising, Miller poured much of its efforts into sports marketing. This year’s Super Bowl initiative included a much-touted cheerleader contest, where four lucky winners attended the Super Bowl as Miller Lite cheerleaders. “It’s about the overall marketing mix,” notes Johnson, including the work produced by Hispanic agency LuceroBentz, African-American agency Fraser Smith Group in New York and 240 young adults that conduct on-premise promotions nationwide. “We’re all working for a common goal. We’ve been pleased with the results.”
Additional efforts were made to target Texas. Though Miller Lite is the leading beer brand in the market, it has been fighting to maintain that position and regain share from Bud Light. Ads created by project agency Square One under the guidance of Fallon included “Cowboy Haiku,” in which a cowboy poet recites haiku about veal. Other Texas-specific advertising from Fallon features Jimmy the product tester, who gets acquainted with Texas and its customs in one spot, including taste-testing hot chili peppers.
“The Lite brand was up 2 percent last year, the third year in a row of slight gain following five years in decline. Not a significant improvement with the new campaign. Similarly [to attain this small rise] they threw a ton more media weight behind the brand and were much more aggressive on price,” says Benj Steinman, editor at Beer Marketer’s Insights, who notes that a beer brand in free-fall has never made its way back into positive sales digits. “What Miller undertook was radical. It’s unusual for a major beer brand, if not unprecedented, to go that far afield. There were many people who thought they were nuts. Basically, into year two, they seem really committed to it.”
“Overall, it’s the qualitative, not the quantitative goal we’re looking at,” explains Johnson. “Our sales were up 1.7 percent in 1997 and the personality of Miller Lite is evolving. Consumers are looking at the brand in a new and different way. At the same time, we are not alienating the older audience.”
Constant consumer research keeps Miller and agency executives tapped into consumer’s feelings for the brand and the commercials they put on air. Though Dick, with his dorky sideburns and off-kilter humor, may have initially rubbed a few viewers the wrong way, the variety of commercials produced over the course of the campaign has allowed people with a need for a more traditional ad message to buddy up to him. With a now instantly recognizable mnemonic and the premise that “anything can happen,” the spots can take the viewer just about anywhere with little risk involved. “The campaign is about constant reinvention,” says Johnson. “Some of the spots are a little further out than others. If you don’t like one spot, don’t worry. There’s another one coming two weeks from now.”
Though Karlsson and Malmstrom were instrumental in formulating the original look and feel of the Dick advertising, a number of creative teams contribute executions to the campaign, which mixes comedy and styles. The humor in the campaign has ranged from the bizarre, such as the tyrannical “Beaver,” to more traditional beer laughs, such as a normal guy watching a romantic movie with his date and being unmoved by the drama onscreen–until his Miller Lite bottle rolls away and shatters. There’s the Cliff Freeman-type humor of the elderly couple necking on the couch and the Diesel-like absurdity of “Robot Love.” On one end of the spectrum is a mainstream commercial director such as Kinka Usher, who has directed spots for Nissan and Pepsi. On the other, a Swedish outfit called Traktor, whose promotional photos, by the way, betray familial ties to Dick.
In pre-Miller Lite days, Traktor, the Stockholm-based directing conglomerate, was best known on this side of the Atlantic for its Diesel work–a campaign close to the hearts of Karlsson and Malmstrom. Fallon creative director Bill Westbrook recruited the pair from former Diesel agency Paradiset DDB, Stockholm. The most recent Miller Lite commercial produced by Traktor includes “Arm,” in which Pavlov’s theory is demonstrated by a man who cannot control arm spasms whenever a Miller Lite is nearby.
“The campaign is some of the most sought-after work out there,” says Usher. “It’s what directors want on their reels. Certainly I feel that way. I would just about drop anything to do it. It’s exciting to be involved in advertising that’s really trying to do something different.”
Directors who have lent their talents to Miller Lite include seasoned pros like Tarsem, who helmed a spot spoofing professional wrestling, and Frank Budgen, who lensed “Informant,” in which a steer trades stampede secrets for cases of Miller Lite, to first-time spot directors Jim and Venza Tozzi, whose retro Nick at Nite promos were noticed by the Swedes.
Music-video director Gerald V. Casale, one of the founding members of ’80s cult band Devo, is the most recent recruit. “Their aesthetic sensibility resonates with me,” says Casale, who directed the cheerleader-search series, including the hilarious “Why is everyone crying” spot.
“They are the much-needed breath of fresh air. I knew we shared a sensibility when they agreed to let me put a mechanical mouse in [cheerleader contestant] Farm Girl Kelly’s apron pocket.” Casale recently wrapped four Miller Lite spots he says are sure to surprise. (A spread in Sports Illustrated’s recent swimsuit issue boasting Dick’s familiar scribble on yellow-ruled paper hints at a new print effort on the way.)
The Swedes aren’t giving anything away, either–except credit. First in line, say Karlsson and Malmstrom, is Bill Westbrook for his creative leadership, then the account executives and planning people. “We’re all in this together, we’ve learned a lot from account planning, from having long talks, sometimes about advertising, sometimes about other things,” says Karlsson. “Everyone is a creative. We don’t care where in the agency an idea comes from, as long as it’s doing its job for the client and fulfilling our own personal criteria for your brain.”
The two admit it hasn’t been difficult getting creative people at the agency interested in working with Dick. “People inspire themselves,” says Malmstrom. “They want to do the next great thing. Miller has given them the opportunity.”