Varnish Remover

Movietone Miller

Movietone Miller

Bottles, produced by Wieden & Kennedy for the Miller Brewing Co.

The blur of beer bottles, the boom of the band. Strains of music, the words foreign yet familiar. “C’est si bon,” croons the chanteuse as the black-and-white images tap barely there memories of a better time: “It’s so good.”

Bottles, produced by Wieden & Kennedy for the Miller Brewing Co., is “about real people in real situations,” according to Miller Vice President Jack Rooney. And there’s little doubt that it aims to re-create a smaller, more intimate world. If the marriage of that world and this mass-produced manna strains credulity somewhat, that’s OK: Nostalgia yields to laughter at the resolution, but it is used to good effect along the way. Explicitly abandoning the brittle brightness of standard beer commercials, Bottles starts by drawing on a vastly different set of themes: simplicity, pride, diligence.

Harking back to a time when there was a human element in the production process, the spot consists largely of industrial-film-style footage of a female worker monitoring bottles of beer as they go by on the belt. Eyes narrowed, concentration absolute, this Hattie McDaniel of the hops watches the line with an unwavering eye. The visuals suggest the 1940s–a draft that sent 12 million men into the armed forces and created unprecedented employment opportunities for blacks and women (opportunities that were lost when peace returned and Johnny came marching home); mass migration from the rural South to the industrial North that made Rosie the Riveter a household name and exemplar. And the lyrics suggest optimism, romance. No gloomy prognostications of doom and bloodshed here; rather, the voice of Eartha Kitt, recalling the languor of the lounge, the sinuous energy of the cabaret and Catwoman. (No matter that the base note here, Kitt’s notorious opposition to another war, complicates the harmony somewhat.)

The long line of bottles rolls on, the equipment right out of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the name on the labels almost discernible. A clunky chyron, recalling Flash Gordon serials and Movietone news, dims, then sharpens, replicating the technical difficulties of early live television as it presents the first words: “It’s time for a good old,” followed by an unexpected “macro-brew.” Unprepared for this jab at the rising popularity of microbrews, you realize that this is what the spot was setting up all along. The retro feel, the sense of intimacy and personal attention, were gimmicks–but effective ones. Reversing roles and recasting the behemoth, the spot transfers the old-world authenticity popularly associated with microbrews to Miller. The next chyron cements the transposition by drawing attention to the words “genuine” and “time” while linking them with the brand name. The message, of course, is that this brew is the real thing; and the humor, of course, makes the message more palatable.

Miller’s Rooney says that the ads in this series showcase the “brand’s unpretentious personality.” Part of the company’s move to generate fresh ideas for the faltering brand, Bottles is clearly not as straightforward as Rooney’s words would suggest. Like the other Wieden & Kennedy spots featured in this column (for ESPN and Nike), Bottles mines a largely imagined cultural memory, using fuzzy images of the past to peddle a distinctly contemporary product. Like the other spots, this one works: C’est si bon.

–Robert Shrum