Ad Report Card

Aiming High

A beer ad without any stupid jokes? Is Miller nuts?

Click image to see the ad. The Spot: 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, a ticker-tape parade, backyard barbeques. A spare but hopeful song plays on the soundtrack, and a woman talks about those special moments that make up our lives. “I’m the Girl in the Moon,” she concludes, “and I want to tell you everything I know.” 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.

This spot is laughably formulaic. Its recipe for nostalgia includes a basket of familiar ingredients. 1) The sequence of iconic snapshots. 2) The wildly overused marimba theme from the film True Romance (which is itself derived from an older composition featured in Badlands). 3) The medley of vague, airy musings about savoring “the moments.”

This voice-over script is a tribute to inanity. “These are the moments that matter. Sometimes I don’t know what will come next. But then it does. Like it always does. It’s you. Your life is made up of a history of moments. It’s a scrapbook packed with the photos of your life.” 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.

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. At the same time, the mainstream brands that advertise heavily—Bud, Miller, Coors (sometimes known in industry lingo as the “premium” category, despite your snickers)—were steadily losing business to the imports and shmancy microbrews (sometimes known as the “worth more” category).

Lately, the mainstreamers have been trying new tactics. A couple years back, Miller Lite * began to tout its lower carb count—and thereby managed to steal some of Bud Light’s market share. The carb-centric campaign emphasized product attributes instead of cheesy one-liners. Because it worked, we can no doubt expect to see more of the same. Take the new Sam Adams ads. Where’s that goofy, colonial dude in the funny wig, whose line was “Always a good decision”? They’ve kicked ye olde beer guy to the curb, and the recent Sammy ads are all about hops and dedicated brewmasters.

But now comes The Girl in the Moon with a third-way strategy. It’s neither a sitcom gag nor a straightforward ode to the quality of the beer. This is an ad about feelings.

You may recall the previous High Life campaign, which featured the “High Life Man.” These ads, directed by Errol Morris (and still viewable at his Web site), sang the praises of the 1950s-vintage man’s man. The kind of fella who knows how to park a boat trailer. 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 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 manager, Tom McLoughlin, claims that the “millennial generation” (the generation that, not coincidentally, has just reached drinking age) tends to value low-irony pitches. He says the brands that appeal to them most emphasize “honesty, practicality, authenticity, and you-get-what-you-pay-for.” It’s always a dangerous game to guess at how ironic (or not) 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? We’ve seen Burger King dust off the King character from its vaults (with a campy flourish), but this is an entirely different sort of spokesperson. The Girl in the Moon 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.

Grade: B+. High Life was repositioned in the early ‘90s as a “near-premium” (or “popularly priced”) beer. This meant that it was priced a few bucks cheaper than “premium” brands like Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft. (Its competitors became working-class beers like Busch and Milwaukee’s Best—beers that sell far better in supermarkets and liquor stores than in bars.) The “endgame” with this new campaign, according to an industry expert I spoke with, is almost certainly to start charging more per case again for Miller High Life (or “increase the pricing power,” as they say). After the marketing department gussies up High Life’s image, the price point will follow.

Correction, Oct. 12, 2005: In the original version of this piece, Miller Lite was misspelled. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.