Miller Lite “Unfollow” lowlights the strange state of cause marketing.

Photo by Štefan Štefančík

This week, Miller Lite launched an ad decrying time spent on social media, and asking people to “unfollow them.” I read someone’s glowing review on Forbes, and sadly, disagreed.

This guy needs some less creepy followers.

I’m not a fan of it. I wanted to like it as I really want to be positive on social media, but I couldn’t. The ability to successfully point a finger at people for being on social media, while broadcasting on social media is a near-impossible task. Then I realized something else. After 25 years in the industry, I was as discouraged with myself, as much as I was with this campaign. Because I, along with industry peers, are equally to blame for marketing moments like this.

Why? because we invented cause marketing and brand improv. It was novel at first. Brands pretending to fight other brands, brands really fighting other brands. Then, came brands standing for something greater than themselves. We taught and conditioned each other that brands should behave like people. But only now do we recognize, that only people should act like people.

As brand improv goes, no one cares about the Miller/Bud wars except for them, or a few lazy journalists who pick up the story. Their tactics feel dusty, immature and bullyish. It’s a game of one-upping each other until they bring this to the nation’s doorstep. A cause piece completely unrelated to anything they have stood for in the past, or should be talking about.

Here’s the problem. When you make work simply to get press or industry recognition, it always rings hollow. And some leaders in the industry have only that goal in mind, to get noticed at any cost. And that makes the rest of us do things against our inner voice. Invent things, go outside and take risks we know are without reward. But we do it anyway. Because we are asked, and lack the courage to say no.

We spend way too much fucking time on our phones. No shit. But no one needs a company that makes vat beer to tell us that. How much higher on the purchase funnel can we go these days. That’s not a strategy, that’s giving up by messaging in the ethos.

Even worse, the ad took far too much time to tell the story. When a product lands in the last 10 of 1:28 seconds, that’s simply taking a knee. And when you use a narrative arc invented when people wore mock turtlenecks and smoked in their offices, you can’t deliver any content to a modern audience.

In a mobile society, by using social media to tell people to get off social, and by doing it in way better suited to traditional arcs is troubling. It makes it clear that being contemporary to how audiences consume content is still not universally understood. 1:28? Really? Why overtell a story you should not be telling in the first place? It’s because of us. It’s because our industry makes it easy to exchange substance for recognition, and reward that behavior.

According to the Fast Company piece, the agency wanted to break through the clutter with this campaign. Breaking through the clutter is what happens when something is so innately good (or bad) that people seek it out. Breaking through the clutter is when work envelops a cultural zeitgeist and draws us in, like a moth to a light. Breaking through clutter is an output of remarkable, not an input of insight. It is the saddest of all gestures to do creative work in service of simply being seen. I’ve tried it, and it screams of desperation.

Clients are also to blame. For allowing an agency to phone it in. To pay for 128 seconds of an agency’s opus and only get their product in the final flickering frames, when most people have already moved on. Hold your agency accountable to what you pay them to do, and work like this will begin to cease.

We used to make ads. For products, not just causes. Remember “Less Filling/Taste Great?” I miss that insight, from back in the days when creatives were their own strategists. Why was that good? Because a creative would never come up with a strategy they could not execute. But that happens more and more these days as agencies have specialized themselves beyond recognition. Where e-mail has replaced humanity. Where silos have kept us separate, and layers have kept us reticent.

Are you beginning to see the irony of this campaign?

Today, can’t an agency just advertise about what is good or different about their product? And do it in a creative way? Or have they given in that Miller Lite is a lesser product, with no distinction, and no real reason beyond socio-economics to make people buy it? Is their product so disadvantaged in the eyes of the agency that they can’t even smoke and mirror us in the least bit, instead of going after a deeply rooted social behavior that is clearly out of their lane?

If true, that’s not Miller Time. It’s review time.

Here’s the true insight to chase. It’s not all social media’s fault. It’s our tethered mobile lives and our need for connectivity. We are all intertwined by our phones, our news, our friends, our travel routes, our weather, how we communicate, how we find people to date, how we order food, and get home drunk from a bar. That is the digital footprint that lives in the palm of our hand.

Miller Lite’s request to unfollow them on social media is not in service to how we must limit our digital lives. In a world where the limitless scroll exists, that directive becomes less about the message and more about our industry’s narcissistic need to get press, and “break through” even in ways that are strategically unsound. Shit, even the “swim on the surface” Forbes guy found fault in that part.

After almost 80 seconds of blind, yet beautiful film, they bring it together with this: “A few friends are better than a few thousand followers.”

That is as successful a payoff as the one from the Varsity Blues scandal. Truth is, you can’t unpack followers from friends. For the majority, they are one in the same. The people we hug in real life are usually the people we follow in our digital one. Sadly, we just don’t get enough time for our face-to-face relationships these days, and it’s not entirely because of our phones.

This spot ended up being far too long (like this article is fastly becoming), far too judgy (again, guilty)and far too outside of what beer advertising should be. It doesn’t present us with new information, only a new source. One, that really doesn’t make sense having an opinion on it.

Let this be an example to us all. We can be better. We can recognize good, strategic work that builds a brand and sells a product. As creatives we don’t need to scream when a client wants more product, as strategists, we should not look for insights that cannot be articulated by our brand, and as clients, we should not allow our agencies to use our money to play auteur or finance an award entry. And even more, when the numbers come in, analytics should not 3-card-Monty the client into believing it was more successful than it was. That just propagates more work like this, that no one really needs.

This is our industry, and we can’t behave like sheep. We must work together, hold ourselves accountable, and do what we signed up to do. We must communicate better, work together better and knock down our walls. We must be fast, efficient and sell both brand and product. We must create work that lives at the intersection of art and commerce, and speaks to a contemporary audience. Because without all that, we will never succeed.

And we must.




Co-Founder Cast Iron LA agency. Webby Judge. Satirist. Contributor to FastToCreate, AdWeek, HuffPo, Digiday and others. I fight fire with humor.

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j barbush

j barbush

Co-Founder Cast Iron LA agency. Webby Judge. Satirist. Contributor to FastToCreate, AdWeek, HuffPo, Digiday and others. I fight fire with humor.

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