In 2011, Miller Lite had an ad campaign called “Man Up”. Among the series of TV commercials was one ad depicting a man at a crowded bar ordering a light beer. The female bartender asks him if he cares how it tastes and the man replies that he doesn’t. At this she responds “when you start caring, just take off your skirt and I’ll give you a Miller Lite.” This ad seems to be targeting a demographic of men, mainly men who are insecure about their masculinity.
I’ll be using semiotics to analyze this media text. Semiotics is the study of how social production of meaning is constructed through a system of signs. Signs are embedded in all texts and are a way to understand the meaning of a text. Signs are also used to understand how our reality is socially constructed, an important point when signs tend to paint popular ideas as natural and normal.
Now I’ll explain the terms. A sign is known as a signifier, while its meaning is known as a signified. The process of understanding the meaning of a sign is called signification and the field of signs is called code. Signs can be read as they were intended to be read, they can be read with a combination of intended and unintended meanings, and they can be read as they were not intended to be read. When I say “as they were intended”, I mean as whoever created the sign intended. In our case, it will be the masterminds behind this Miller Lite ad.
In this particular ad, we’ll look at how the signs are arranged in a certain order (known as syntagmatic analysis) and how a group of signs reflect overarching themes (known as paradigmatic analysis).
Now that you have a basic understanding of semiotics, let’s analyze this Miller Lite commercial.
First let’s look at all the signs. When the commercial starts, we see a casually dressed man walk up to the bar and request a beer. He’s a normal enough looking guy, no chiseled conventionally attractive good looks for a man. The bartender, however, is a female and follows the trend of being conventionally attractive. By conventionally, I mean what the dominant ideology (or idea) in society decrees as attractive: thin, long-haired, lots of makeup, big breasts, etc. When the man speaks, it’s offhand and easy going. When the bartender speaks, she comes across as sharp, witty and biting. After she insults him with the comment about him wearing a skirt, he walks away with a skirt on.
Just these few signs open up a lot of potential signifieds. In recent beer commercials, men are often pandered to as just “normal dudes” who are often either participating in or are the butt of some joke about their ability to act in traditionally masculine ways. They are not held up to the same standard of beauty and camera-ready attractiveness that females are.
In this ad, the man is a normal guy who made a mistake: he didn’t care what his beer tasted like. As a result, he was knocked down a few notches by a female in the worst way – with her insulting his masculinity. The difference in their tones can also tell us different things. The man speaks easily without any real vehemence. The woman answers with a sharp-tongued put-down. This reinforces the man’s failure at being “manly”. He didn’t command her attention with a loud voice or a strong opinion, and she reacts as though disdainful that he didn’t fulfill this masculine expectation.
When she says “when you start caring, just take off your skirt and I’ll give you a Miller Lite”, and we see him walking away wearing the skirt, two things happen. First we have a verbal message about what it means to be masculine and then we have a visual reaffirmation of that normative expectation. When she says the line, we know she’s insulting him. How do we know that? Because traditionally, men don’t wear skirts. Women wear skirts. The very core of masculinity as an ideal lies in its opposition to femininity. So what would seem normal or of value to a woman, i.e., wearing a skirt, would be abnormal or negative to a man. So when she says the line, we might think it’s funny or might agree with its message because we know men wearing skirts is an abnormality in our society.
Then when we actually see him walking away in the skirt, we get the visual representation of that abnormality, and it appears ridiculous because we understand that it’s supposed to be ridiculous. Men don’t wear skirts. Especially not manly men who embody all the values of traditional masculinity, like strong opinions, competitiveness and the ability to drink lots of beer. That man is wearing a skirt, and by wearing a skirt he is more like a woman, and by wearing a skirt and not caring about his beer he is therefore a failure as a man and needs to, as the commercial later says, “man up”. The message is clear: by drinking Miller Lite, men will be fulfilling these expectations of masculinity.
Syntagmatically, the commercial is arranged by the combination of signs: the lack of opinion, the insulting bartender and the ashamed man walking away in the skirt. Everything sets up the expectations of what a man should do at a bar and
what he should do in front of women. The conventions are all there: the regular dude, the attractive female, and the pressure to live up to gender expectations.
The paradigms are reflected in this as well: the relatable, approachable male character as representative of all men and the attractive, witty female character as representative of all women. Their exchange represents a paradigm that upholds traditional masculine values and inscribes them in the product – the beer – and tells men “you aren’t a real man unless you drink this beer” and “you aren’t a real man if you can’t impress hot ladies”. The themes of gender expectations and attaching values to a product are there.
So now that we’ve had a good analysis, I’ll tell you why you should be glad that we did.
It’s essential to be critical of media texts because they influence our perception of the world, whether we’d like them to or not. Commercials like this, just like all other forms of advertising, reinforce and perpetuate selective ideals of society. They both create and reflect popular culture, and that is something we are all involved in. By examining media texts like this, we can understand not just what the advertisers might have wanted us to understand, but more importantly what they didn’t want us to understand. We may get a dominant reading out of a text and fulfill exactly what the producers of the text wanted. But by being more critical we are able to get a negotiated or even oppositional reading of a text, which can reveal to us the beliefs and values embedded in it. Those beliefs and values that we discover can be intentional and they can be unintentional, but everyone has a point of view they’re viewing the world with. Shouldn’t we be aware of that?