Thursday, July 7, 2011

Immortality on the Can

The bright blue can sits in front of me, next to my plate of BBQ ribs, slaw and 3-bean salad. The occasion is a group of friends who have gathered at our house for a last-minute pre-July 4th celebration. Which means eat and drink, with only verbal fireworks. 
I’m a black belt master of BBQ, which is evidenced by my rub, my sauce, and my backhanded basting technique. All I will tell you about the rub is that I use garlic powder, paprika, ground black pepper, chili powder, and a couple of secret ingredients from the lower shelves at Schnucks. My sauce is classified, right next to the government file on time-travel experiments.
But I digress.
I pick up the blue can with the red and blue letters and a picture of a glass of beer. Large beads of sweat trickle down the can. St. Louis humidity makes for an appetizing product shot. I read the label while someone at the table tells a story about being questioned by the FBI in some sort of real estate scam. The financial concepts are beyond me. So I stare at the can and four words capture my attention. Four simple words. Two separate thoughts. One immortal marketing campaign.
And my imagination takes off. 
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. But don’t cue the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. This is a different yesteryear.
Once upon a time, in an office far away, a young copywriter - at least I picture him as young - and as a “him” - sat at his desk and pondered his assignment. Ideas were due the following day. Lines, themes, concepts. Anything that might sell the product.
In front of him, next to his note book and index cards and layout pad and felt tip pen, sat a can and a bottle of Miller Lite Beer.
The year was 1972. The agency was McCann-Erickson. And the category of “light beer” was an invisible blip on brewery radars. Guys drank real beer, like Bud and Schlitz and Pabst and Miller High Life. Light beer was for wusses and women.
The copywriter stared out the window at the fading day. The question nagged at him: How do you get real guys to drink light beer? Specifically, Lite Beer from Miller? Well, he thought, what if you had real guys with the beer? Like athletes. But pro athletes couldn’t appear in beer ads. So... maybe retired athletes. Famous guys connected with sports or some facet of masculinity. 
Add some conflict. The guys argue. About the product. About two differing points of view of what’s so good about Lite beer. Put ‘em in a bar. Maybe some chicks hanging around.
Yeah, that’s it. He feels the surge of breakthrough. He stands on the precipice of beer history. The view is glorious. He writes down four words on the layout pad. Four words in bold, black felt tip.
“Great taste. Less Filling.”
And a category is born.
At least that’s how I picture the birth of this great campaign.
I have but one wish for that copywriter. That he’s alive today, in good health, and surrounds himself with the comforts and joys the world has to offer, including a winter home on St. Bart’s, a summer home in Boulder, and a vintage 1972 Corvette in cherry condition. I hope he was paid well, had a sizable stake in profit sharing, and made a killing when the agency merged. And that he got out with his nerves and digestive system intact. 
Before I return to the ribs and slaw and get ready for the watermelon and peach cobbler, I have one more really deep thought. It’s this: Copywriters are the Shakespeares of our culture. They create the words that can live forever. Maybe not as lofty as the Bard’s, but certainly more pervasive. “Just do it.” “This Bud’s for you.” “Think small.” “Finger lickin’ good.” 
And “Great Taste. Less Filling.” Maybe those words will still be on the can a hundred years from now. And someone else will ponder the state of our culture. 


  1. You're right. There are only a few of Shakespeare's lines I know by heart, but there are quite a few of lines from ad campaigns...

  2. "Copywriters are the Shakespeare's of our culture. They create the words that can live forever."

    Yup. Just today talking to a friend I said, "We've come a long way Baby."

    Too bad it was linked to a cigarette (Virginia Slims).

    Janet Riehl

  3. "Brushy-brushy-brushy with the new Ipana"...and the ad campaigns keep going. "Melts in your mouth not in your hands." They use these old product adds on alzheimer's patients, to trigger long term memory. I'll drink to that.

    Now, I want barbeque and slaw :)