Can you catch lightning in a bottle twice? Not if you're Miller "High Life"

This is a tale of two beer brands. Budweiser and Miller. Both had some iconic campaigns around the early 00's.

Bud's was decidedly low-brow with its Whassup an inescapable catchphrase. You couldn't say What's Up and not think about it. Which made you say the catchphrase. Which reinforced the brand. It also painted Bud as the beer for chill, before Netflix coopted the word as a euphemism for sex.

It was before my time in advertising, but I assume Budweiser wanted to increase its market share among African Americans, which might be why the cast of characters were black. All I know is it was funny as hell. The simplicity made it genius in a Jerry-Lewis-receiving-a-French-Legion-Of-Honor kind of way.

And damned if it wasn't on brief. Bud isn't the beer for going out. It's not a celebratory beer. It's an every day beer. It's the beer for doing nothing. Whassup? "Nuttin'. Just watching the game, having a Bud. True." And just like the tag line implied, it was true.

Miller High Life on the other hand, was as high brow as its brand name implied. Rife with sardonic, dry observations that painted a picture of what living the High Life meant, as much as the everyman who quaffed the beer. The voice over took its time and let the scene play out so slowly. It took a certain trust on the agency (and client's) part to let these quiet moments become heroic. Dripping with wit and with a voice over that compelled you to listen, the spots always featured men on their own, with camera delightfully askew, a cinéma vérité capturing the male in his natural habitat, featuring scenarios that were always deliberate. 

Bud's brother Bud Light, may have poked fun at the Real Men of Genius, but Miller High Life, was decidedly on the same side.

Just take this example. We see the man at the kitchen sink. Not sure of what he doing at first. Then the voice over gives us a clue:

Here’s a lesson for the would-be Casanova.

Every so often it’s advantageous to remind the little lady she hasn’t dropped off the radar.

The reveal, if you could call it that, is that the man has been rinsing out an empty, filling it with water, and then adding a flower to it. For the little lady.

Well, well, well. Two to one you’ll be Living the High Life tonight.

The balance between voice over and direction by the esteemed Errol Morris is still considered some of the greatest advertising ever aired. 

And while Bud's demographic was more pointed, Miller's was not. To paraphrase Michael Jackson, it didn't matter if you were black or white.

Fast forward to 2020 and it might as well be 2000. The beer wars are back. Budweiser just resurrected Whassup, using the original footage of the OG spot, but with new dialogue referencing the quarantine. And Miller High Life got Errol Morris to shoot some new spots safely, using his own camera and his son as talent

Between the two, Budweiser stayed...wait for it...true to its roots. While Miller High Life feels like it was focus-grouped to death.

To be fair, Budweiser's spot is a little weird. It's like watching The Breakfast Club, a movie I've seen about two thousand times, only to find the dialogue's now referencing social distancing and face masks. It's a bit of a mind-fuck. 

But damn if it isn't still on brief. 

As an aside, the glut of sacrilegious remakes of movies has reached a laughable point now. I really hope remaking advertising campaigns will not become the norm and that this is only due to unprecedented times. Otherwise, there is less of a reason to try and come up with something original.

Budweiser is the beer for hanging out and doing not a whole lot at all. Sure the references to watching reruns of the game seem a bit ham-fisted, but it's still in tone.

Miller, on the other hand, seemed like its sole idea was to one-up Budweiser by getting the same director, and then proceeding to choke the life out of the original concept because fourteen people had to "weigh in" on scenarios.

What's worse is that the scenarios in question don't necessarily show the everyman in a positive light. Building a beer can stack is something the Bud guys would do between reruns of classic sports games.

The voice-over is lacking all nuance. It doesn't put the everyman High Life guy on a pedestal for doing small things, nor does it attempt to bring us on a philosophical journey the way the original campaign did. It also makes no attempt to get inside a man's head and plumb the depths of his psyche.

Rather, it does the opposite and lowers the bar to the point where it feels like Miller High life is now the beer for men who grew up getting participation trophies.

Take the spot "Stack" for instance.

With all this time, you could have learned a new language, or written the great American novel. But instead, you did this. Bravo.

What exactly did the guy do? Make a stack of all the beer he plans to drink today because his life is meaningless now? 

With the original campaign, there was a sense of anticipation. What will the guy be doing next? He might have been grilling. Or watering the lawn. Or just waiting for his wife before they go out for dinner.

Now, there's no element of surprise. The High life Man is doing what everyone else is doing, although thank God they didn't try to do a Zoom happy-hour conference.  

If indeed this campaign died a thousand deaths by committee, I want to pour one out for anyone at the agency who ever saw the originals and tried to do something as good before it got neutered in the spirit of collaboration.

I'm not saying they would have ever gotten there by doing this, but rather than making a list of "stuff we are doing at home," they should have started by asking how would the 'High Life Man' from the original campaign have reacted to this scenario. 

But if they did that, they would have first needed to understand who the High Life Man is. Like the Budweiser dudes, he's still out there. 

It's just that advertising has long since decided he's not worth talking to any more.

At least we still have the original campaign as a reminder. 

Here is "Sports."

And here is "Clippers."

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Dabitch's picture

I wasn't a fan of the original High Life campaign, as so many others around me were. In fact as I recall it, everyone that I knew in the US loved it. Most of these fans were copywriters, most - but not all - were men. And it wasn't until I saw the rose in the rinsed out glass that the campaign hit me. "Every so often it’s advantageous to remind the little lady she hasn’t dropped off the radar." Now I knew exactly who this man is, who was targeted, and I loved it.

The new generation falls completely flat. They haven't captured the essence of this man or the right attitude. It's a different tone entirely. It honestly doesn't look like they even tried.

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