Rob Walker | Essays

The Lives They Lived: Let There Be Lite

In the past 12 months, Entertainment Weekly published a theater review headlined ''Night Lite''; Business Week ran a cover story emblazoned ''Reform Lite''; The National Review titled a book review ''Strobe Lite''; and this very magazine featured an article called ''Nation-Building Lite.''

By now, ''lite'' used as a postnominal adjective (in linguist lingo) is a shorthand we all recognize: it suggests that there is something about the subject at hand — a production of Shakespeare's ''Twelfth Night,'' regulatory responses to corporate scandals, Strobe Talbott's latest book, efforts to revive Afghanistan — that is insubstantial, watered-down or otherwise not up to par.

L-i-t-e as an alternate spelling of light has been around for probably a hundred years or more, but it didn't take on a unique meaning until the last quarter of the 20th century, riding its way into quotidian discourse by way of one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever. And, curiously enough, evolving from a positive association to a vaguely pejorative one.

The story begins with John Murphy, the former president of Miller Brewing. Murphy was a Philip Morris veteran, appointed to the Miller post in 1972 after the cigarette maker bought the brewery. Soon he took a business trip to Germany with George Weissman, the chairman of Philip Morris. Weissman was trying to keep his calorie intake down, and at a restaurant one night a waiter offered him a Di* t beer. Murphy, an exuberant man of Irish descent, who was 6-foot-3 and weighed 250 pounds, didn't exactly come across as a dieter himself, but he ordered one, too. The men sipped, Weissman recalls, and Murphy said, ''There's room for something like this in America.''

Up to that point, the reality of the American beer marketplace suggested otherwise. The first nationwide diet beer, Gablinger's, proved a notorious flop; beer and dieting were not, it seemed, a natural pair.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a reference to a lower-alcohol ''leoht beor'' as far back as 1000 A.D. The marketing data for that particular product is not available, but we do know that in America in the late 1960's ''light beer'' was pushed either as vaguely medicinal (Gablinger's actually had a picture of a doctor on the can) or something for the very diet-conscious, especially women. Miller came upon the name of its low-calorie offering after buying Meister Brau, a Chicago brewery, in 1972. Although Meister Brau Lite wasn't the disaster Gablinger's had been, it was hardly a hit. Leonard Goldstein, a Murphy colleague who later became C.E.O. of Miller himself, remembers it as being marketed to ''people with a weight problem or to women. There was a woman on the can even.''

But Lite would prove to be different. While the Meister Brau brand was dropped from the name, it wasn't simply replaced by Miller. In those days, the word ''lite'' wasn't a generic term: it still stood out, grabbing attention in a way that ''light'' couldn't. Murphy and company wanted to emphasize that stand-alone name rather than call the new beer ''Miller Lite,'' which, the feeling was, would simply detract attention from regular Miller. So the can said, ''Lite, a Fine Pilsner Beer.''

Despite a fair amount of skepticism — one analyst declared that ''the whole light beer thing is a fraud'' -- Lite was an almost immediate success. In 1976, Schlitz introduced a rival light, as did Anheuser-Busch a year later. Murphy was right beyond anything he could have imagined. Today, 44 percent of all beer sold in the United States is light.

While Miller tinkered with the formula for Lite, what Murphy really brought to the table was the aggressive marketing talent of Philip Morris. For a television campaign, the company hired spokesmen who, as Philip Van Munching wrote in the book ''Beer Blast,'' ''reeked of masculinity'' — like Mickey Spillane, Dick Butkus and Wilt Chamberlain. Instead of preaching calorie-consciousness, Lite ads featured tough guys debating whether it was better that the beer ''tastes great'' or that it was ''less filling'' (a shrewd bit of phraseology that suggested you might be able to drink more of the stuff). In the days of three networks and no Internet, the commercials were a truly inescapable, and popular, phenomenon.

Meanwhile, although women had been counting calories since at least the 1940's, the 1980's was when baby-boomer males started worrying about their health and about ''looking fit,'' according to the food historian Joanne Lamb Hayes, author of ''Grandma's Wartime Kitchen.'' By then Miller had taught the country the meaning of ''lite,'' the word skittered across hundreds of new-product labels (more than 350 in the first half of the 80's). There are a smattering of precedents for the word's use in connection with a few other ''less filling'' foodstuffs; a trademark search finds Lite Diet Bread dating to 1954. But the 1980's is when it became an almost generic presence: Lite became lite, and took on a life of its own.

No linguist I could find has yet produced a definitive story of lite. But I was pointed to what may be the earliest use of the word, outside the realm of food and drink, in the postnominal style that is now so familiar. An October 1984 Washington Post music review argued that with his record ''Breaking Hearts,'' Elton John had given up on loftier ambitions in favor of simple pop hits: the album was ''a sort of Elton Lite album — tasting great even as it's less filling,'' the reviewer wrote.

If there was still some room for ambiguity in what the adjective ''lite'' implied when it was used this way, it faded fast. By 1986, The New York Times went so far as to argue that the 1980's was ''The 'Lite' Decade,'' meaning a time of diminishing substance: relationships, entertainment, politics, work, health -- there was an unbearable liteness in all of it. ''In the 1980's light beer is not the only thing that is less filling,'' the front-page article contended. ''What started out as a way to justify drinking three beers instead of two . . . has become part of a broader phenomenon in which less is valued above more.''

What would John Murphy have thought, contemplating that Di* t beer back in the early 1970's, of overseeing the launch not just of a successful product and the creation of a whole new market segment but also the popularization of a word that would take on a connotation rather different than what Miller had in mind? Murphy was, by all accounts, a man of great humor, who encouraged the light touch of those famous beer ads and who joked that running a brewery was any good Irishman's dream come true. So perhaps he would have simply laughed off the whole idea. In any case, it is hard to imagine that there is much he would change. As his son would later put it, ''He was Lite Beer.''

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, December 29, 2002. 


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