I’ve been watching TV commercials for more than 50 years. For my money, the greatest ad campaign in history was for Miller Lite in the 1970s.
The campaign’s task was daunting indeed — get men to drink diet beer. Diet beer??? For the men of the ’70s, who were used to drinking Schlitz, and Stroh’s, and Budweiser, and other mass-produced beers of the day? You have to convince beer drinkers to worry about how many calories were found in each bottle, when they’re used to downing a six-pack without batting an eye? You’ve got to be kidding, right?
So they called it “lite” beer because they knew that calling it “diet” beer would be rejected as totally unmanly. And, they came up with a memorable catch phrase — “great taste . . . less filling” — even though no beer drinker in the long history of suds ever gave a thought to a cold beer being too “filling.” And to make the drink even more acceptable in the macho ’70s, they had retired athletes serve as the primary pitchmen for the new beer, in clever, funny commercials that often had the jocks ready to brawl to settle their shouted disagreement about whether “tastes great” or “less filling” better described the brew. (To get a sense of the underlying testosterone in the commercials, take a look at this ’70s spot involving former NFL middle linebacker Dick Butkus, who was one of the most popular Miller Lite commercial stars in those early days.)
And somehow, it worked. Miller Lite ushered in an era in which other brewers rushed to offer poorly conceived “light” beers — I once consumed an Iron City Light Beer, and barely lived to tell the tale — and what was at one time an American market that was dominated by a few boring pilsner products offered by large national brands started to diversify. The trend continued, and now a trip to your local grocer is likely to present you with a dizzying choice of porters, stouts, Belgian ales, wheat beers, light beers, and even non-alcoholic brews, where once only Budweiser and Schlitz and one or two others were found.
I’m not saying that Miller Lite inevitably produced the craft beer explosion, but I do think the Miller Lite ad campaign created a crack in a closed market that soon was knocked wide open, and it did it with a clever name, a clever slogan, and funny commercials with ex-athletes — lots and lots of ex-athletes. How many later ad campaigns for products for men followed that winning formula?