Mar 13, 2009, 09:45AM

"America, is that Really You?"

Errol Morris' meta-masculine TV advertising is effective and... intelligent?

The following video was included in this article:

I could go for a steak. Or eggs. Or steak and eggs and bacon and mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. On a bun. Anything from this blog, really.

Errol Morris’ spots for Miller High Life are to blame, really. You can (as I did) watch all 80 of them here. I was tipped off by Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan, who prefaced it: “Any future student of tropes of masculinity in millennial America will start here.”

There is a persistent, grating masculinity in Morris’ spots, founded on a moral constitution of tool belts, beer guts and bowling. The vocabulary is familiar; in fact, it’s about as straight-forward as you can get with macho/masculine/ass-scratching tropes. The way these ads are shot, though, is entirely different.

The camera is almost voyeuristic, lingering in low angles, peering over meaty shoulders and sometimes glazing in and out of focus—in which case the viewer is the world-weary protagonist, grimly judging some SUV with an automatic transmission or grimacing with the thought of wasting bacon grease. Each shot is generally framed so as to crop out full figures; we see hairy knuckles, wiry mustaches, belt buckles, worn jeans with keys tucked in a pocket. The viewer is usually looking down at some task—light carpentry, welding or hauling—absorbed in an American version of Zen Buddhism.

The spots are mostly successful at conjuring the rugged he-man bullshit of our visual culture without most of the bullshit—no small feat. And that is in large part due to the narrator, with his gnarled and stony drawl, who sets the scenes. A few choice ones:


There are enough knowing references to the ridiculousness of the very culture the spots are conjuring as to connect with, say, a bearded writer like myself. There are a lot of dumb man-tropes: who counts calories?; no man gossips; waiting for a woman to get ready (though points for the almost-tender grandma spot); referring to bottles as “tall blondes”; etc. But, guilty as sin, I just finished packing away a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (from Dunkin’ Donuts, unfortunately) because all those shots of meat and beer and sizzling pans just, well, got to me.

We have the glorification of the Luddite in spades. In the Miller High Life world there are no leaf blowers, no starter logs, no mechanical seed planters; a man takes pride in his hair no matter how little there is, where you sometimes use the phrases Johnny-come-lately and man juice; where it’s hard to respect the French when we’ve bailed them out twice in the past century, but at least “Pierre” gave us mayonnaise (also, cue the line, “Those pins are going down easier than a French prizefighter”); where there’s a weird obsession with deviled eggs and olive loaf; where almost everyone has a mustache, dirty hands, wrenches, grease and oil. Don’t mess with pagers, and, if you must read, read about concrete. This is Gran Torino serialized, but with Clint Eastwood dialing it down a notch or two and without the racism. Then there are touches of the surreal:


It would be nearly impossible to take all these elements—masculinity, subtle irony/knowingness, blue-collar boilerplate—any further. When it comes down to it, we’re being sold shitty beer really well, and for the person who owns a TV there’s something to be said for appreciating a 15-30 second spot that doesn’t demean your capacity as a functioning adult.

I don’t think, a hundred years from now, these spots would necessarily hold up as solid anthropological evidence of “millennial American.” There’s too much of that certain tang of dog-whistle advertising—where those in the know can still enjoy the commercial as much as those not in the know.

But the spots did drive me to a crappy breakfast sandwich. And, a bit coincidentally, the last beer in the office mini-fridge is a microbrew based on a French-style ale. That’s not quite the “high life,” but I think Miller will forgive me for making it half of the distance.

  • I just looked at thisiswhyyourefat.com and it's ummmmmm the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life. And someone just showed me a photo of human kidneys sitting in a trashcan.

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  • Are Americans really to blame for their misfortunes? It seems to be the real culprit is the food industry. Give a chimp a banana...

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  • I much prefer the High Life delivery guy. These are good though...more arty. I'm not surprised they haven't been seen by a wider audience because they are pretty bizarre. Good bizarre though...I kinda feel like a bacon cheeseburger right now, actually.

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