By Alan Siegel
Bob Lenz thought he might be hearing things. It was the spring of 1984, and the advertising executive's son was graduating from Boston University. During the ceremony, some presumably restless (or drunk) college seniors started a call-and-response chant.
Half a row yelled, "Tastes great!"
The other half replied, "Less filling!"
This wasn't a case of rebellious frat boys sticking it to the dean. They were only repeating lines from a Lite Beer commercial. This fazed no one except Lenz. After all, it was his catchphrase. At the McCann-Erickson agency, he had helped develop it for the Miller Brewing Company. That morning, it hit him. The silly little slogan had become a cultural phenomenon.
"I wanted," Lenz said, "to shrink under the seats."
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These days, it's hard to imagine televised sports without light beer commercials. Seemingly every broadcast is larded with promos crammed with eye-glazing inanities like Punch Top Cans, Cold Certified Bottles, Man Laws, Silver Bullet Trains, Triple Filtered Smoothness, golf and Lance Armstrong.
But things used to be different. Unfathomably, light beer was once a fledgling product. While lower-calorie suds had been sold before, the stuff didn't gain a foothold until Miller introduced Lite Beer (later renamed Miller Lite) in the 1970s. For sports fans of a certain age, the brand's advertising campaign still resonates. It launched a new genre from which, for better or worse, we have yet to escape.
The ads ran from 1974 to 1991 and starred retired athletes, coaches and celebrities, including Bubba Smith, Dick Butkus, Bob Uecker, John Madden, Red Auerbach, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Joe Frazier and Rodney Dangerfield. The rotating cast had fun together on camera and off, and it showed. As Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka, who appeared in multiple Lite commercials, told me: "They paid us to have a good time."
That included shilling for Lite, which, as the pitchmen guaranteed ad nauseam, didn't fill you up. The concept took shape in the early 1970s, soon after McCann-Erickson landed the Miller account. The struggling Milwaukee brewery -- at the time it was behind Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, Pabst, Coors, Schaefer and Falstaff -- had just been purchased by Philip Morris. The aggressive tobacco behemoth had big ideas for beer.
"Even our most heated competitors would agree that we were responsible for the marketing revolution in the beer business," Miller vice president of corporate affairs Alan Easton gushed to Sports Illustrated in 1988. "We introduced them to segmented markets, target marketing, to image-oriented selling. We knew how to translate our products into media in a way that made the consumer feel good about himself when he bought them. The beer people hadn't a clue about this sort of thing until Philip Morris bought Miller."
But Miller first needed a better product. The company inadvertently found one in 1972, when it acquired something called Meister Brau Lite. The regional lower-calorie beer was popular in one place: Anderson, Ind. Steve Norcia, who headed the Miller account for McCann-Erickson, spent a week there trying to figure out why.
The small city was home to a Delco Remy plant. After making ignition parts all day, the factory workers liked to kick back and drink Meister Brau Lites. "They'd go to the bar and they suddenly realized they didn't fart and belch and do everything else when they drank Meister Brau Lite," Norcia said, "because they didn't get filled up."
That claim was never scientifically proven, but Norcia was on to something. As Backer put it, a less-filling brew would appeal to "the two-fisted beer drinker." In other words: the beer drinker who drank a lot of beer.
By 1973, Miller had reformulated Meister Brau Lite into Lite Beer. That year, it tested well in several markets, including Rhode Island. Norcia remembers jogging through Providence and spotting a stray Lite can. "Once Lite was in the gutter," he said, "I knew we had arrived."
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While devising the campaign for Lite, McCann-Erickson made a conscious decision to avoid referring to it as a diet beer. In the still-Paleolithic climate of the early 1970s, the agency's fabled former creative director Bill Backer reminded me, that kind of thing wasn't considered masculine. They needed something else.
"The magic words," Backer said, "were 'less filling.'" Both he and Lenz worked extensively on the Miller account, but neither actually came up with the million-dollar line. The credit goes to copywriter Pacy Markman, who one night approached Lenz, his boss, with a piece of paper. "Look at this," Lenz remembers him saying. On it, scribbled in magic marker, was this: "Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less."
"You know it's good if it feels inevitable," Markman told me. "What else would you say?" Not that he was celebrating. After all, it was just a line. "I didn't go buy jewelry because of it," he said.
Around that time, Lenz took a fateful ride on a New York City bus. He recalls glancing above the windows and seeing a photograph of Matt Snell. The ad man doesn't even remember what the burly Jets fullback was hawking. But, Lenz said, "[Snell] just had a nice smile for a big, rough guy." It didn't hurt that Snell had recently helped lead his team to victory in Super Bowl III. He was, Lenz thought, the perfect face of the Lite Beer campaign.
According to Norcia, Miller liked the idea of using athletes. So did Snell, who was still trying to figure out what to do after his football career ended. Coincidentally, Rheingold Beer had just hired him as a sales representative. However, the brewery wasn't offering him a spot in its television commercials. The decision was easy. When asked to be in a Lite spot, Snell quickly said yes.
"You know, new Lite Beer from Miller is everything you always wanted in a beer. And less," the first-time actor said in the first Lite Beer ad, which was shot in a bar on Manhattan's East Side. "Less Filling, because it has less carbohydrates and one-third less calories than their regular beer. I didn't drink all this beer by myself." (He was surrounded by empty bottles.) "Had a little help from my friends. But imagine a great-tasting beer that's less filling. At 6-3, 230, there's a lot of me to fill."
Narrated by gravel-voiced actor Eddie Barth, the promo debuted in 1974. Snell was a Super Bowl champion, but in public, that no longer seemed to matter. He said strangers called him "Lite Beer Man" and sent over drinks, which he didn't mind accepting. After all, there was a lot of him to fill.
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The campaign was a hit. Miller rolled out Lite nationally in 1975, and immediately ordered more commercials. Early ads showcased crime novelist Mickey Spillane, drummer Buddy Rich and Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Ernie Stautner. After the initial promos aired, Lenz recalls Miller making a request. "You're talking about less filling," he was told, "What about taste?"
So, in 1976, McCann-Erickson wrote a spot in which Boston Celtics player and coach Tommy Heinsohn and ex-NBA referee Mendy Rudolph got into a shouting match about Lite's best quality. Rudolph said "Tastes great!" Heinsohn said "Less filling!" A catchphrase was born.
The former nemeses also embodied the campaign's irreverent ethos. "Tough guys, not necessarily slick, successful guys," Lenz said. "We never did a commercial with Joe Namath because we did not consider him beer-y." Plain old superstar athletes bored Lenz. He preferred clowns, rebels and has-beens. "Guys could identify with them," Snell said.
For example: Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, who used to barge into Lenz's New York office and "jokingly" demand to be in more Lite ads. Uecker, the Lite crew's unofficial mascot/roast master, enjoyed playfully giving Nitschke the business. "Ladies and gentleman," Lenz remembers the journeyman catcher-turned-broadcaster announcing at a Miller Lite All-Stars banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel, "after three days, he finally realized that he's supposed to take the cellophane off the soap." (Csonka said that during filming Nitschke chased Uecker around the set. The former Miami Dolphin also loved bringing up the Immaculate Reception in front of Madden, who'd promptly go on a three-minute rant about it.)
Then there was Marv Throneberry, a career .237 hitter and member of the putrid 1962 Mets. By the mid-1970s, Lenz said, "Marvelous Marv" was working in a glass factory in Tennessee. After flying to New York for a Lite commercial shoot, a limo picked him up at the airport. Throneberry, Lenz said, "got into the front seat with the driver."
Actress Lee Meredith, who played Ulla in the original version of The Producers, was a staple, too, appearing first as an extra in an ad with Spillane, then regularly as Spillane's Marilyn Monroe clone sidekick. She fit right in with the group. "They treated me like a little sister," Meredith said. Except for Dangerfield, who during one commercial shoot, berated her as she sat in the makeup chair. In an interview, she had criticized the comedian for, well, being a pain in the ass. "I don't care who you are," she remembers him bellowing, "how could you do this to me?"
Sportswriting great Frank Deford -- he once popped up in a Lite commercial with Throneberry and Martin -- recalled the incident in his memoir Over Time. Apparently, Spillane arrived to save the day. "He was Lee's protector, and he was judge and jury and executioner," Deford wrote. "'You never go near her again,' Mickey roared, holding up a menacing fist."
In case you're wondering, Deford had no misgivings about starring in a beer ad. "SI [his employer at the time] thought it was very funny," he said. Not everyone was OK with it, however. Because of his association with Miller, one writer suggested that Deford should no longer cover the St. Louis Cardinals (then-owned by Anheuser-Busch) or Miller's hometown Milwaukee Brewers. He laughed off the idea.
"Part of the charm of the commercials was that the athletes -- many of whom had been genuine champions -- made fun of themselves," Deford wrote in Over Time. "It absolutely astonished me, then, that when I made the commercial, that a couple of distinguished colleagues asked me if, by appearing in such a vulgar divertissement, I wasn't denigrating our noble sportswriting profession, rolling poor Granny Rice over in his grave. Excuse me, you had every bad stereotype being flaunted: big, black guys acting tough; stupid jocks acting stupid; a blonde with big boobs playing dumb; even an umpire acting blind. And sportswriting's reputation is going to be tarnished?"
"Besides," he added, "it was a money grab."
With time to kill on set and at promotional appearances, the cast members got to know each other better. It also helped keep the athletes, who were all retired, in the spotlight. "They were being recognized again," Deford said. "They got a great big kick out of it. I didn't have to retire from being a writer when I was 35 years old." Miller even made alumni commercials that periodically brought the entire group together.
"We got to drink beer the whole time and they bused us around," Csonka said. "In regards to a good job, it was just a dream come true."
And not just for Csonka. By 1977, on the strength of Lite, Miller had jumped to second place among U.S. brewers, behind only Anheuser-Busch. Two years later, Backer and Interpublic (McCann-Erickson's parent company) vice chairman Carl Spielvogel started their own company. Backer & Spielvogel -- Lenz made the jump with them -- quickly poached the Miller account. In 1986, the newly formed agency sold to Saatchi & Saatchi for $100 million, which buys a lot of jewelry.
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By the mid-1980s, Lite commercials had become ubiquitous. Deford wrote a short paperback about the craze called Lite Reading. ("That was a money grab, too," Deford said.) Lenz and his partner, Bob Meury, even cobbled together a treatment for a Miller Lite All-Stars movie. The proposed caper film centered on the cast saving Dangerfield. Thankfully, it was never made.
Miller continued to push Lite on sports fans, who as Miller VP Easton told SI, were easy marks. "Once you're into the demographics of sports, you are also into the total demographics of beer drinking," he said. "You get them all, from the couch-potato spectator to the high-action, participating jocks -- joggers, softball players, bowlers. Even at a very high price, it is an extremely cost-efficient buy. TV sports and beer commercials are a perfect marriage."
That quote was one of many startling findings in a 1988 SI cover story about beer and sports. William Oscar Johnson reported that at the time, young men (aka sports fans) made up 20 percent of America's beer drinkers but drank 70 percent of all beer consumed in the U.S.
Bubba Smith, a former lineman who ripped the tops off Lite cans during commercials, eventually quit the campaign after making a disconcerting visit to his alma mater, Michigan State. While serving as the marshal of the homecoming parade, he heard people screaming "Tastes great! Less filling!"
"Then we go to the stadium," Smith, who died in 2011, told Scott Ostler of the Los Angeles Times. "The older folks are yelling 'Kill, Bubba, kill!' But the students are yelling 'Tastes great! Less filling!' Everyone in the stands is drunk. It was like I was contributing to alcohol, and I don't drink. It made me realize I was doing something I didn't want to do."
Unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of Miller's gimmick eventually waned. Bud Light, which Anheuser-Busch introduced in 1982, passed Miller Lite in sales for good in 1994, three years after the "Tastes great! Less filling!" campaign finally ended. "How can an idea last that long without it being old?" said Norcia, who worked in advertising for 40 years but no longer watches much TV. "I'm sitting here in my house because of advertising, [but] I'm tired of commercials."
Today's beer ads, Lenz thinks, are indistinguishable from one another. The aim, he said, "is the youngest possible audience. The construction worker with a lunchbox is no longer in their target."
The secret to advertising, Markman said, is that most of it is and always will be mediocre. Miller found a niche, and exploited it. The fun part was a bonus.
"It's too bad it had to end," Csonka said. "We mourned it. I wish we had a furniture company so we could do the same thing."
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Alan Siegel has written for Slate, Deadspin and Boston Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @alansiegeldc.