Miller Spots a Strategy for Bowl Wars

A Return to Dalmatians In Effort to Counter Bud’s Super Exclusive

Miller is calling out the dogs again.

Beginning tomorrow and running through the Super Bowl, the brewer will blanket the airwaves with a new Miller Lite ad featuring a Dalmatian, a longtime mascot of its chief rival, Anheuser-Busch.

The spot shows a Dalmatian sitting on a couch watching an earlier Miller ad. After seeing the commercial, the dog leaps off the couch and runs down the street, where it’s joined by other Dalmatians, which scamper out of a barn full of Clydesdales (another reference to Anheuser). The pack of pooches follows a Miller truck that reads: “Miller Lite Has More Taste Than Bud Light.”

It’s not the first time a company has expropriated a competitor’s ad icons for its own commercials. But what makes Miller’s campaign different is the intensity of that effort. Its back-and-forth ad war with Anheuser goes back several years, and over that period Miller has borrowed for its own use not only Dalmatians and Clydesdales, but even sports referees, which Anheuser had used for a series of Bud Light commercials.

With its latest ad, Miller, a unit of SABMiller, is trying to undercut Anheuser during its biggest day of the year, the Super Bowl. Miller — unable to air its spot during the game because Anheuser has paid to be the exclusive alcohol advertiser — will air its new spot about 300 times across 30 other networks such as Walt Disney’s ESPN and Viacom’s Comedy Central. Miller plans to spend $2.5 million to $2.7 million on the spot in the four days leading up to the Super Bowl, according to a person familiar with the matter. After its Super Bowl blitz, the commercial will run well into February.

Miller will try to crash Anheuser’s party in other ways too: The brewer’s 425 distributors will be handing out Dalmatian pins and posters around the country, and it is sending “Miller Girls” and several Dalmatians to Glendale, Ariz., site of the Super Bowl, to mingle at parties.

While Miller clearly faces an uphill battle — Miller Lite has 8.4% of the market compared with Bud Light’s 19.3%, according to industry publication Beer Marketer’s Insights — some analysts believe Bud Light is more vulnerable than ever. “Bud Light is not growing as fast as it was” several years ago, says Mark Swartzberg, a beverage-industry analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.

[Dalmatian]One of the Dalmatians in a new ad spots a Miller Lite truck.

The beer business is fast gaining a reputation for this kind of slap-each-other marketing. In 2004 and 2005, Miller spent much of its ad arsenal taking shots at Anheuser, and Anheuser responded with its own comparative ads. There was a brief lull, until last fall when Miller returned to that strategy, saying that its sales suffered in 2006 when it went back to playing nice. Anheuser didn’t come out slugging in the fall, but took more of a swipe at its rival with a full-page ad in some newspapers that read: “Keep up the bad work, Miller.”

The latest Miller spot riffs off its ad last fall, which showed a Dalmatian apparently changing allegiances by leaping from a Bud wagon onto a Miller Lite delivery truck.

“We recognize that in an election year there tends to be a lot of negative advertising, and we feel speaking to the quality and virtues of our brands will differentiate us in a cluttered advertising environment,” said David A. Peacock, Anheuser’s vice president of marketing, in a statement.

Miller believes its feisty approach is working. Sales for Miller Lite are up 1.2% since October, says Randy Ransom, Miller’s chief marketing officer.

While ad campaigns that are critical of the competition — or poke fun at it — are a common practice in the fast-food, beverage and other industries, hijacking a rival’s ad icon is somewhat rare, thanks in part to trademark laws. In this case, a Dalmatian is considered part of the public domain, and advertising lawyers say it would be tough to protect its use.

Deb Boyda, Miller’s vice president of content, says the brewer’s new ad “has a little competitive chutzpah.” That’s a bit of an understatement. Anheuser has used the Dalmatian in its ads for decades, and one of its seven Super Bowl commercials this year is expected to show a Dalmatian helping a Clydesdale horse live out his dream.

One big risk for Miller, of course, is that viewers could see the Dalmatian and simply think “Bud” instead of “Miller.” In fact, Anheuser is counting on it.