Among the more optimistic advertising slogans (“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” “Diamonds are Forever”) lies Miller High Life’s “The Champagne of Beers” assertion. It’s so bold it reads almost as a dare, like when a celebrity self-identifies as down-to-earth in an interview aboard a private plane. Miller’s Champagne dreams, however, are surprisingly grounded in reality.
When Miller (now MillerCoors) introduced the lager, in 1903, bottled beer was a rarity. Most turn-of-the-century drinkers could only purchase beer in taverns. They either consumed it on-site, or toted it home in wood or metal pails, as a sort of proto-growler system.
High Life debuted on New Year’s Eve 1903 in clear glass bottles designed to showcase the beer’s clarity. The elongated necks were deliberately modeled after Champagne bottles. “Also, at various times throughout its history and especially early on, High Life had ornate foil that covered the cap and top of the neck — similar to the way Champagne is sold,” Charlie Hosale, archivist at the MillerCoors brewery in Milwaukee, said in a 2015 interview.
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When Philip Morris Cos. acquired the brewery in 1969, High Life was considered a luxury product. McCann-Erickson, the label’s new advertising firm, gave High Life an everyman rebrand under the “Miller Time” campaign. From 1970 to 1978, Miller High Life sales quadrupled, according to AdAge.
Last year, slumping sales prompted another new firm, Quaker City Mercantile (of Hendrick’s Gin and Lo-Fi Aperitifs fame) to return to a 1971 “Miller Time”-era tag, “If You’ve Got the Time, We’ve Got the Beer.” Sales reportedly jumped 5.8 percent in the weeks surrounding the spots in November 2016.
The original “Miller Time” campaign was conceived by legendary advertising executive and lyricist Bill Backer, who also created Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” commercial. The auteur behind the “Champagne of [Bottled] Beers” concept sadly remains unknown.