originally published March 16, 2012
I have not yet written an article on one of my favorite topics: great beer. Today I will unfortunately not be breaking that streak. My topic du jour is Miller Lite.
I’ve only had one Miller Lite in my thirty-seven years, and I vaguely remember it being only marginally different in gustatory satisfaction from Bud Lite, which left my taste buds shrugging their buddish shoulders, wondering when they could expect to be used. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my more sophisticated beer-soaked buds would be more receptive to Miller Lite today. But I doubt it.
Lite’s Wiki-page lists the ingredients contained within the beer “at one point.” I don’t know what has changed, maybe Miller has since conformed to the Reinheitsgebot principle of “Bavarian Purity.” For those who think I just made up that word (and I’m known for making up words whenever it fits my mood), the Reinheitsgebot law was brought forward in 1487 Germany, decreeing that the only ingredients that are to appear in any beer in the nation would be water, barley and hops. They have since expanded the law to include yeast, and even wheat and cane sugar, but that’s about it. Let’s see what was in Miller Lite “at one point”.
Water, barley, hops and yeast, they all make an appearance. Miller Lite also contained propylene glycol, a seaweed extract also found in moisturizers, shampoo, deodorant, smoke machines, tobacco and antifreeze. That’s a good start. You’ll also find corn syrup, carbon dioxide, papain enzyme (which can whiten your teeth, take the pain out of a jellyfish sting, and block THC from showing up on your drug test), liquid sugar, food coloring, and potassium metabisulfite (which can be found in certain photographic developer solutions). Yum!
Alright, but it’s only 96 calories and 3.2 grams of carbs. So it’s almost good for you! (except for the antifreeze)
Miller Lite first appeared as Gablinger’s Diet Beer for the Rheingold Brewing Company in New York, back in 1967. The recipe made its way to Chicago, where the Meister Brau company put it out as Meister Brau Lite. Miller, an all-American corporation, bought out the competition and re-branded the diet beer as “Lite Beer from Miller”, the official name of the product until the mid-80s.
The year was 1973. Miller test-marketed the new product in Springfield, Illinois, Knoxville, Tennessee, and San Diego. Rather than target dieters (the overlap between dieters and beer drinkers wasn’t great in the early 70s), Miller went after “guys”. Sports heroes, macho dudes, these were the spokespeople who would launch Lite into the successosphere.
And they were right. Fuelled by Lite’s success, Miller rose to become the number two brewer in America by 1977. Budweiser, seeing Miller creeping up on its back, created its own version, Bud Light, in 1982. Bud’s recipe was ready for the fight.
And fight it did. By 1992, light beer was the top-selling form of beer in the United States, and by 1994 Bud Light was outselling Miller Lite. The popularity of these beers may be an indication of the derision paid to American beer in other cultures around the world (Canada included). Light beer may be kinder in the calorie department, but there’s a certain taming of flavors required to make these drinks palatable to the masses. A McEwans Scotch Ale will engage you with a heady complexity of flavors, but you’ll also be ingesting a whopping 250 calories per pint.
There is, however, one field in which Miller Lite has truly eclipsed most of its competition over the years (though Bud is in the running here too), and that’s in their advertising.
Advertising Age magazine rated Miller’s “Tastes Great… Less Filling” campaign as the eighth greatest advertising campaign in history. The commercials, for those too young to remember (or for those who spent extended periods of the 80s away from their televisions, for some reason), featured someone remarking how Miller Lite tastes great. Someone else would counter that the beer was less filling, possibly trying to point out there is still a benefit in drinking the beer, despite having to endure a flavor not unlike that of the sweat underneath William Conrad’s man-boobs.
The two sides would erupt in a brawl (though fists weren’t thrown in the commercials – they usually just shout-brawled), and we’d never hear if there was a consensus. More often than not you’d find celebrities – usually athletes or ex-athletes – holding court on one side or the other. Miller pitted Yankees manager Billy Martin against his nemesis, owner George Steinbrenner, in one terrific spot. Several ads featured former catcher-turned-broadcaster (and sitcom dad) Bob Uecker in the midst of the feud.
Miller tapped a number of sports figures, usually focusing on the sports that mattered most to American viewers: baseball and football. John Madden did Miller Lite spots before turning his attention to Ace Hardware and Tough-Actin’ Tinactin.
It got to the point where Miller would put together annual ads packed with all the stars they’d used in the previous year’s spots, holding a grand battle of Tastes Great vs. Less Filling. Usually the commercial would find its way to deliver some sort of losing situation for their perennial joke-butt, Rodney Dangerfield.
In the 1990s, it was time to drop the campaign and evolve. Miller tried out weiner-dog drag racing in one spot, another featured beauty pageant contestants playing ice hockey, yet another launched sumo wrestlers off a high-dive platform. In 1997 they got surreal with a bunch of strange ads made by some mysterious guy named “Dick” (they were directed by Gerald Casale of Devo. No, really.).
In 2002, because weird-Dick wasn’t weird enough, Miller went for controversy. The infamous “Cat Fight” commercial featured two attractive women engaging in the Tastes Great vs. Less Filling debate, eventually wrestling around, stripped down and covered in mud. An underground extended version surfaced, featuring the girls engaging in a passionate kiss. For those who are interested (in a research capacity of course), the video can be found here.
I can’t honestly remember any Miller Lite ads from the last decade. They did something about “Man Rules” with Burt Reynolds a few years ago, but the spots were forgettable.
And really, that’s all I hope to get out of Miller Lite. Entertain me, make the commercial breaks I have to sit through more tolerable.
Just don’t expect me to drink the stuff.