The idiosyncrasies that made Miller Brewing Company's High Life Man campaign stand out
You know them, you may be air-quotes over them, hell you may even hate them. I'm frankly still in awe of the Miller High Life ads directed by Errol Morris (art direction by Portland OR's Wieden & Kennedy). I am not a paid expert on the matter but will reveal that my 1995 M.A. thesis was titled "Enlightened Working Class Images in American Film" and I enjoy looking at these things academically. When I told my ma-in-law the thesis title she said, "Now it all makes sense," -the obsessing over new and vintage workwear or photo archives, quoting from the Dictionary of American Regional English, hunting through thrift stores in rural areas... etc.
Have only ever found a few articles that dealt w/ the Morris/MHL ads in any meaningful way; from the filmmaking decisions to voiceover to copy, The Boat has alot going on. Found some great background info as below;
Better reacquaint yourself with the High Life, soldier, before someone tries to take away your Miller Time. This last line, in particular, spoken in the register of a military commander, invokes the sense of discipline required to restore an appropriate masculinity. While that discipline must be a self-discipline, its urgency is underscored by the panoptic gaze of the neighbor whose perspective dominates the spot. That choice of perspective was deliberate...Sure, but aren't these ads simply ironic homages to a defunct sort of masculinity? The better ads of the (absurdly prolific) series don't rely on explicit maleness [or xenophobia -ed.] and the copy verges on poetry.
-via Lair 2007
Morris originally conceived of close-ups of tires scraping the curb and the trailer hitch jackknifing. "But then I looked across the street," Morris said, "and thought we should just show the whole thing from the other guy's point of view." This view included a mock gaslight lamppost, which filled about a third of the frame as a quintessential suburban symbol. Finally, three cameras, each with different film (35-mm, 16-mm, and Super 8), shot the spot. Wieden & Kennedy decided to use the Super 8 footage, filmed by Morris himself, because it captured the vintage "1950s John Birch Society" atmosphere that the agency wanted, according to Williams [Wieden & Kennedy art director Jeff Williams, who also stood in as the man on the lawn].
...The entire campaign was "appealing to that masculine sensibility, the way men are always imparting undue significance to whatever it is we're doing, like a guy saying if I can't drive that 16-penny nail in three strokes I'll quit right now," Kling [Wieden & Kennedy copywriter Jeff Kling, btw great stuff. -ed] explained. He added, "It's like it's a matter of pride, as if the very fabric of our democracy is being woven here with the shifting gears of backing up a trailer."
- via JiffyNotes
In the final analysis it is still the High Life MAN though. Daniel Lair (in Leisure, Work, and Manliness: Masculinity-in-Decline and the Miller “High Life Man”) has some pithy observations about the challenges to masculinity (and the way those challenges are framed) in the campaign;
Together with voiceover man Doug Jeffers – whose deep, hyper-masculine voice is almost certainly the singly most important element contributing to the success of the campaign (Quigley, 1999) – this team [Wieden & Kennedy team of art director Jeff Williams, copywriter Jeff Kling, and producer Jeff Selis] maintained a stylistic consistency which allowed the ads to hang together in what Morris described as a “mini-movie” (in Middlekauff, 2000, para. 9). Several stylistic elements combine to provide this consistency. First, all of the spots are shot from visually-jarring camera angles not typically seen in mainstream media: shots almost never depict a whole man, only parts, leaving audiences with an incomplete sense of who the men are and depicted in a manner that suggests that the High Life Men of the commercials could be any man.
...The implication of leisure, however, is cemented in the themes addressed by the advertisements: barbequing, yard work, recreational equipment, and fishing, to name just a few. These leisure time pursuits are frequently framed as challenges, from repairing a refrigerator with duct tape to finding ways to maximize free time... Here, the leisure time challenges highlighted may be more mundane than the often extreme challenges faced by the men of more “traditional” beer commercials, but they are challenges nonetheless. In addressing issues of leisure, the campaign implicitly addresses issues of work, as well. Here again, the cultural legacy of Miller’s once-prominent status plays a prominent role: “Miller Time” was (and is) undeniably after work, but is also framed in many respects as a reward for work.
...Here, the High Life ads transform the generic convention of challenges at work and leisure by framing the challenge that men face not as a specific obstacle to overcome – such as a raging stream or an attractive woman – but rather as a more general cultural malaise that must be resisted. The second way that the High Life ads transform the convention of challenge is through their suggestion as to how such challenges should be managed. The challenge posed by the campaign is not one to be won or lost through skill or brawn. Instead, such challenges can only be met with an inner strength that can be found in re-asserting a more traditional masculinity through living the High Life.
The ironic stance of the campaign distances itself from its overt message, instead functioning as a critique of the shallow nature of contemporary masculinity. The High Life Man thus opens a discursive space from which to critique the masculinity of most beer advertising: a masculinity which is vain, insecure, obsessed with demonstrating an extrinsically-oriented sense of superiority in overcoming challenges, and inevitably turns women into objects of sexual conquest. The High Life Man is able to subtly suggest that these manifestations of masculinity are themselves in part responsible for the crisis of masculinity; that the men of traditional beer advertising, by participating in a surface masculinity rather than a “true” manliness, are not “doing their part.”