Masculinity, Hipsters and the Miller High Life Man

Between 1998 and 2005, director Errol Morris created over 100 ads for Miller High Life aimed at rebranding the beer as a symbol of American masculinity. Adam Houghtaling on the enduring influence of the High Life Man message in the millennial era.

A shirtless, barrel-chested man turns to the camera and stands proudly akimbo, his thumbs hooked over his belt, in front of a white gas range. His head is out of the frame and there’s a faint popping of hot grease in the background. The scene cuts away to a smoking cast-iron pan and a sweating bottle of Miller High Life. A voice asks…

“Is your name Sally? Sally, the Salad Eater?’

… and answers:

 “No. You’re a High Life Man. And you don’t care who knows it.”

In 1998, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris was hired by the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy to produce a series of commercials for the Miller Brewing Company’s storied, but flagging High Life brand.

Together they created the “High Life Man,” an idealized male specimen represented by a rotating cast of primarily white, middle-aged stoics whose simplified, mid-century definition of masculinity is confronted by modernization (electric knives and SUVs) and the rise of the “metrosexual,” a term coined just four years earlier, in 1994. In a weathered tone the ubiquitous voiceover ponders the world around him: “The man who takes his grooming cues from the bowling center can walk with confidence.”

The hugely successful ads continue to occupy an iconic place in the history of beer advertising. Beautifully produced—with Morris’s love of lingering shots and odd framing—the ads were earnest, ironic, arty, satirical and introspective, where other beer advertising was loud and juvenile. (For comparison, consider Budweiser’s infamous “Whassup?” commercials, which ran concurrently from 1999 to 2002.)

The High Life Man series remains relevant as both a shining example of the commercial form and as an encapsulation of masculinity in millennial America.

It also brought the High Life back from the edge of extinction.

From the suburban lawns they first settled on after WWII, the proud, time-trapped men in Morris’s commercials fix things (with duct tape), and grill things and look askance at vegetables, pleated pants, soccer, electric razors, electric knives and pagers. “There is an arch villain named technology on the loose,” one ad proclaims, “and it’s trying to steal our High Life.”

When Philip Morris purchased the Miller Brewing Company, in 1969, High Life advertising had been unsuccessfully focused on bow ties, dinner parties and jazz musicians. But with a shift toward a more traditional men-doing-manly-things approach to marketing, High Life became the most popular beer in the country, second only to Budweiser.

But then Miller Lite (introduced in 1975) began to cannibalize High Life sales, a trend furthered by the introduction of Miller Genuine Draft, in 1985. By 1997 High Life was in trouble again.

In an interview for The Idea Writers, Jeff Kling—then a copywriter at W&K—recalled that Miller kept the High Life brand around “because some beer drinkers liked it.” Eventually, Kling wrote the bones of what would become “The High Life Manifesto,” which laid out the notion that masculinity in a “metrosexual” time was in danger and needed saving.

Campaign planners traveled to several Midwest cities to interview hundreds of High Life drinkers about their lives and values. They returned with a profile of their High Life Man: an older, hard-working man who likes the simple things and holds firm to tradition. Kling recalled quotes like, “We have no sympathy for the guys in collared shirts who get in their Lexuses at the end of the day and go home and cry into their beer.”

The High Life Manifesto opened with the conclusion that “only a large scale decline in American manhood can account for the near disappearance of Miller High Life Beer,” and continued, “We will stare down every shameful modern manifestation of male impersonation and say: you cannot kill our beer.”

Enter Errol Morris.

Morris, who has admitted to loving commercials “unreservedly,” and has often referred to them as “the haiku of the West,” excitedly signed on when W&K contacted him.

For the series, he crafted a muted look suggestive of mid-century photography, shooting at times on grainy Super 8 film stock. The commercials’ tempo seems at odds with an unnecessarily harried modern world, the camera often lingering on the mundane—a pair of frosted doughnuts, hot dogs rolling in boiling water—while Doug Jeffers’s voice delivers ponderous poetry complimenting its target audience: “The High Life Man knows that if the pharaohs had duct tape, the Sphinx would still have a nose.”

The ads painted a portrait of anachronistic, postwar masculinity that spoke to older, blue-collar beer drinkers as much as it did Gen-X and millennial consumers. Kling recalled in a 2005 AdWeek interview that, “in a weird way, the High Life shit, with all its grandpa values, seemed to resonate with younger guys.”

When political blogger Andrew Sullivan posted a link to the ads in 2009 he wrote, “Any future student of tropes of masculinity in millennial America will start here.”

The masculine tropes represented in the ads may be stuck in the 1950s—with references to the H-bomb, munitions, bailing the French “out of two big ones in one century”—but they prove that the yearning to preserve some storybook notion of the American male is still relevant to the current generation.

From the suburban lawns they first settled on after WWII, the proud, time-trapped men in Morris’s commercials fix things (with duct tape), and grill things and look askance at vegetables, pleated pants, soccer, electric razors, electric knives and pagers. “There is an arch villain named technology on the loose,” one ad proclaims, “and it’s trying to steal our High Life.”

In 1999, Miller posted a 5.4 percent increase in High Life sales during a period when sub-premium brands overall declined by 2.3 percent. Even with the increase, High Life still represented only 13 percent of Miller’s unit sales, with Miller Lite and MGD combining for 53 percent. But by the mid-aughts sales had leveled off and High Life had settled in as the ninth most popular beer in the country.

In a 2005 New York Times article spotlighting High Life’s then-new “Girl In the Moon” campaign, Benj Steinman, publisher and editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, noted that the High Life Man series had “worked well for a while, but he’s run out of steam.” The company also desired to re-position the brand and raise its price to compete in the premium beer category it occupied for most of its history.

Jonah Bloom, writing for Advertising Age, was surprised upon the announcement of the High Life Man’s retirement: “It played perfectly into the cultural backlash against metrosexuality, it spoke to those of us who still aspire to our stoic fathers and grandfathers, who built stuff, who knew stuff.”

Sales sank after they pulled the campaign and the High Life brand hasn’t fared well in the intervening years. In 2013 Deadspin ranked High Life only 31 out of 39 cheap American beers and a recent report from Beverage Industry found that High Life case sales declined nearly 10 percent between 2012 and 2013.

But while the brand has flagged, the High Life Man lives on.

The campaign’s ripples can still be felt in the hipsters’ adoption of sub-premium beers, the present influence of early-20th century workwear in men’s fashion and our post-industrial, handicraft fetishism in magazines like Monocle and Inventory, and on websites like A Continuous Lean, whose Michael Williams admitted in a 2010 post that he has “long been obsessed” with the campaign.

Today’s incarnation of the High Life Man is wrapped up in a much more conscious choice to link today’s DIY, back-to-the-land, bearded aesthetic to tradition in an attempt to prove that this isn’t all just a flimsy obsession with flannel and woodworking. Today’s High Life Man is less anxious about preserving certain ideals of masculinity, rather he (or she) is purposefully creating meaning out of our consumer-obsessed, instant-gratification era by simply opening a non-craft beer, and enjoying what it means to be a High Life Man.