Late last month, as sure as clockwork and cranberry relish, the Miller High Life Christmas commercial arrived.
It's been 25 years since it was filmed on a snowy night in the Mad River Valley of Vermont. Every holiday season since, starting around Thanksgiving, the ad returns to television screens.
"It stops your heart," said Gaelic McTigue, who owns one of the shops seen in the commercial.
If you've never seen the ad, its action and emotional momentum are pulled by a workhorse, the kind built for drudgery and known as a hackney.
That's no name, however, for such a combination of grace and power.
The animal's head and neck bow into the bracing cold, and it surges ahead as six simple notes strike the keys of a piano. The melody flows right into the limbic brain. We don't need the lyrics; they're wired in like smell or wind.
I'll … be home … for Christmas … The music is important. Think of the commercial if it were set to "Jingle Bell Rock," for instance.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas," written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent in 1943, was a WWII song. The last line, "if only in my dreams," is full of longing.
To the strains of this almost melancholy song, the ad changes perspective. Momentarily, we're in the sleigh or just behind it. This kind of sleigh is called a cutter, and you can see why. It slices through the deep snow, gliding past a covered bridge and barn before we see sheep across the road ahead.
Pulling through a village, which looks not so much from out of the past as out of time, we see a block of glowing shops on the right.
Then the sleigh breaks out into the countryside. It's dusk, the cold, pink time before night falls fast to the frozen ground. Now we can now see two people, swaddled in blankets, in the sleigh, which seems to be flying through the twilight toward a house.
The home, where we will be for Christmas.
Solidly set in the wide open snowscape, the house is candescent with light. The sleigh draws up to the front door, the voice of Gene Barry says "Merry Christmas from Miller," and it's over.
It takes 60 seconds. But spots like this one "can, over time, create a consistent image in the minds of consumers that really plays off the very deep emotions of a holiday," said Rich Semenik, dean of the College of Business at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Semenik said ads like Millers', which won a Gold Medal from the Art Directors Club of New York for best 60-second commercial of 1977, sustain interest year after year for lots of reasons.
"There's a timelessness to them," he said.
"We're not going to get rid of Christmas, we're not going to get rid of Mother's Day …. tradition and ritual is associated with holidays, and consumers are very ritualistic. They revere these rituals."
The Millers commercial "has so many cliches," he said. "The snow, the barn, the New England scene we conjure up to be Christmas. Hollywood Boulevard just isn't the same."
Lots of ads contain cliches. Why don't we get tired of this one?
That's where art comes in.
TV commercials are made by "killers and poets" — the business side and the art side, explained Semenick, who co-authored a widely used college text, "Advertising."
"No matter how many MBAs you've got sitting around in a room saying, 'Sell more beer, sell more beer,' they would never in a million years conceive of that ad," he said. "That's the magic of the creative director and the camera person and sophisticated editing."
The Millers ad was made on film rather than video, Semenik said, which gives it a "hugely rich texture, whereas video is flat."
The killers and poets behind the sleigh ride worked for an agency called Backer Spielvogel Bates, said Michael Brophy of Miller Brewing in Milwaukie, Wisc. Bob Lenz was the art director and Bob Gaffney Productions filmed it.
The agency chose the location near the Sugarbush Valley ski resort with the help of real estate agent Atty Munro, who had worked in New York before moving to central Vermont.
The area is known as the Mad River Valley. The name came from the fact that the river flows "up," or north, for 27 miles, said McTigue, a 55-year-old artist who owns All Things Bright and Beautiful on Bridge Street in Waitsfield.
She remembers well when the Backer Spielvogel poets arrived. It was March, 1976.
"It was the time of year when most of us are going, 'Oh God, a long dark spring,' " McTigue said. "Then the crew pulled into town. They said, 'We're going to deck the halls!' "
"They tied up the village for quite a while … They spent so much money for 60 seconds."
The commercial was filmed at three times of day, including a shoot that started at 3:30 in the morning. They didn't want cars around to sully the snow, McTigue said.
"They hung lights in an 80-foot elm tree" outside her shop, she said. Coaxial cables were laid to accommodate the need for power. "They covered the cables with snow."
Judy Phelon had an 18-month-old baby at the time. She was an extra in the wee-hours scene.
"That's why they paid us the big bucks to be extras — $147 as I recall," said Phelon, currently the owner of a Waitsfield real estate agency. "I was happy to have it. We were young parents and it was a huge sum of money to us. They walked us up and down the street, yawning, for several hours until they got the light right."
It had rained the day before the shoot, "but that night, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and 13 inches of snow fell," says a 20-year-old press release still on file at Miller Brewing.
Even so, Phelon said, "They had to blow snow in front of the covered bridge and on the street in Waitsfield Village, because the snow gods didn't cooperate. …
"They also covered all the windows with the new white mini-lights which are so familiar now," she said. "It looked like a fairyland. It was the first time many of us had ever seen those lights. Since that day, each Christmas, the town is duded up the same way. They started it."
The sleigh in the ad appears to cross the town's revered covered bridge, built in 1833. But McTigue said that's an illusion — it was too difficult to light the bridge.
The house at the end is in nearby Warren, which like Waitsfield is more than 200 years old and a little smaller than Castle Rock. According to Betty Hansen, owner of Beaver Pond Farm in Warren, the farmhouse was owned by Fritz and Cassie Steinway, "of Steinway Piano fame," at the time.
In a valley full of historic houses, the crew chose that one "because the driveway wasn't paved, so the sleigh could get close to the house," McTigue said. "You can't pull a sleigh on a paved road."
The glow emanating from the Steinways' windows, with its promise of joy and intimacy, came from strobe lights, she said.
Does the commercial sell Millers Light?
You bet, said marketing expert Semenik. "It reinforces the brand name."
The emotions stirred by a 60-second ad can change what happens in front of a freezer case full of beer, he said. Of the "vast humanity" who see the add, many will choose Millers "for no real conscious reason."
Advertising idealizes experience to get consumers to make that grab. Some of us, however, drink only from the images.
Back in Warren and Waitsfield, things sound as if they are as pristine today as they were 25 years ago. And longer ago than that.
"It's phenomenally beautiful here," said McTigue, who moved to Vermont from Chicago in 1968.
"We have six months of skiing. … There are no billboards. We don't like brick and mortar. … If we didn't have cable and water, you'd swear it was 1890."
She knows of no one in the valley who does not like the Millers ad, McTigue said. Certainly, tourists appreciate it when they realize where they are.
"They stand here and look up the street, and they almost get weepy."
"It's the romance of a sleigh ride in the country, that some people will never have," said the shopkeeper. "They think, 'Where is that place? Does it really exist?' "