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‘Buy This Beer or I’ll Kill You!’ — The Ad You Won’t See This Super Bowl

The strange story of how Schlitz went from industry giant to bargain-bin beer, thanks to one terrible decision after another

This is the first Super Bowl in 37 years without Budweiser ads. Instead, Budweiser owner Anheuser-Busch is giving the money it would have spent on a big spot to COVID relief. Well, they’re still running ads for Bud Light, Michelob and Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, plus an ad for the very concept of having a beer, and running additional huge national promotions and stuff, so they’re basically doing what they always do while pretending not to, but there won’t be a “Drink Budweiser” ad per se.

Another beer you won’t see advertised during the big game? Schlitz. But they were there first — back in the mists of time, an ad during 1969’s Super Bowl III informed viewers that, “when you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.” It was six more years until Budweiser debuted an ad in the big game, and 13 years after that, in 1988, that Anheuser-Busch would become the exclusive beer sponsor of the event, and spend millions every year.

Meanwhile, Schlitz is pretty much nowhere to be seen these days. Its website is full of broken widgets, and none of its social media accounts have been updated for four years. Budweiser and Schlitz were once friendly rivals, the title of most popular beer in America passing back and forth from one to the other like a slightly foamy ping-pong ball, so Schlitz’s fall from grace was colossal and bleak, a cautionary tale of beer and bad decisions.

The decline of Schlitz is generally attributed to two things that happened in the late 1970s: 1) a recipe change that horrified drinkers; and 2) a TV ad campaign that frightened viewers.

The campaign was based around rugged fellas, shot in a first-person perspective from the point-of-view of someone trying to persuade said fellas to trade their Schlitz for a different beer. These men ended up coming across as incredibly aggressive, like the last thing someone might see before being brutally murdered, and within the advertising industry, the campaign was nicknamed “Drink Schlitz, or We’ll Kill You.” Here’s one spot in which a mountain man threatens to feed you to his pet cougar:

Here’s another, in which a boxer promises to knock you unconscious:

And here’s a third, featuring Teri Garr as a waitress cheerfully assuring you that, yes, the customers in her bar pawing at her will absolutely murder you if you take their beer away:

“You could never make an advert like this now, simply because you can’t suggest any sort of performance- or mood-improving qualities to an alcoholic drink,” says advertising creative director Nick Hearne. “These ads are playing back how the audience want to see themselves. ‘Hell yeah, I’m a rugged mountain dude that would set a cougar on a trespasser!’ thinks the accountant from the suburbs. Or that they’ve got the wit and skill of a fast-talking champion boxer. Basically, these ads are saying this is the beer of men, and you better not take it away from us. It’s like people smoking Marlboros and thinking it gives them a cowboy edge.”

The campaign was conceived by industry giants Leo Burnett — in fact, the same company credited with changing the image of Marlboro cigarettes from ultra-feminine to the stubbly outdoorsman’s smoke of choice — and taken off air after just two months, with customers saying they felt the ads were telling them to fear people that drank Schlitz.  

Not that there isn’t something to them. “I don’t see why these ads performed so badly, I really enjoyed them,” says Hearne. “If a campaign like this ran now, I imagine they could be viral and popular if the script and tone was right — imagine a member of the production crew trying to convince a Ron Swanson type to swap his beer for something else and the amusing confrontation that could ensue. They aren’t even saying ‘Drink this or I’ll kill you,’ they’re saying, ‘I like this beer so much that if you take it away from me, I’ll kill you.’ Big difference.”

So was it the ads’ fault, and the threat of being eaten by a cougar — along with Schlitz’s decades-long insistence on using the word “gusto” — that killed the beer that made Milwaukee famous? 

It certainly didn’t help, but Schlitz was mostly killed by cheapness.

Schlitz was once huge. In the 19th century, Milwaukee was home to a large German immigrant population, among them some pretty big names in beer: Frederick Miller, Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Pabst and Valentin Blatz were all producing rival brewskis, and Milwaukee was the biggest beer-drinking city in the U.S. A fire in 1871 ended up working oddly in Schlitz’s favor, as the company was forced to float huge amounts of beer out of town to not have it destroyed, and it ended up being given away for free and creating thousands of Schlitz enthusiasts. Creative marketing, like shipping cases to Mombasa in 1909 for a photo-op with a post-hunt Teddy Roosevelt, made the beer bigger and bigger.

But cheapness eventually stepped in. After losing the top spot to Anheuser-Busch in 1957, Schlitz spent the 1960s trying to reduce its costs wherever it could. Case in point: In 1964, it acquired a Hawaiian beer named Primo and, in a bid to cut costs, shipped dehydrated wort from the mainland instead of using Hawaiian ingredients. Primo’s market share fell from 70 percent to 20 percent in just four years, and nobody learned anything from this.

“The big thing that tanked Schlitz was the big reformulation disaster it had in the 1970s,” says Chris Drosner, executive editor of Milwaukee Magazine and Beer Baron columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal. “Longtime drinkers even in Milwaukee — and people here are very loyal to these brands — gave it up because the beer was so objectively bad.”

This reformulation involved replacing fresh hops with cheaper hop pellets, and malted barley with corn syrup. They sped up their production process, resulting in beer that was insufficiently aged and formed an odd haze when chilled. To get over this, they added silica gel, which brought its own concerns — neither the FDA nor the nation’s beer drinkers would have been incredibly into the idea of drinking silica gel. So they came up with another ingenious plan: Instead of aging their beer properly like other breweries were, they’d use another anti-hazing agent, but one that later got filtered out so didn’t need to be mentioned anywhere. 

As Martyn Cornell writes in this excellent Beer Connoisseur piece, “Unfortunately, what Schlitz’s brewing technicians did not know was that the new anti-haze agent, called Chillgarde, would react in the bottles and cans with the foam stabilizer they also used, to cause protein to settle out. At its best this protein looked like tiny white flakes floating in the beer and at its worst it looked like mucus.”

By the time of the “Drink Schlitz or We’ll Kill You” campaign, the company was on the back foot. Drinkers were unimpressed by the new taste, there were secret product recalls and Schlitz’s market share was dropping. “This came at a time of major consolidation and challenges to the beer industry,” says Drosner. “Schlitz handled this period so poorly that it was basically extinct by the 2000s or so, when Pabst Blue Ribbon started its retro-hip comeback. Schlitz was among the many brands Pabst acquired during this time and it was basically just a brand, as the original recipe was lost. Schlitz fit with that kind of lowbrow, retro-cool vibe that fueled PBR’s comeback, and that’s the niche it has in Milwaukee now.”

Schlitz is still seen here and there, but while it was once the beer that made Milwaukee famous, it now sits in the $3-a-tallboy space. “It may still have been made in Milwaukee even during the reboot — Pabst contracted mainly at Miller facilities including Milwaukee until just late last year — but I don’t think people here really still think of it as a Milwaukee thing,” says Drosner. “In my opinion, new Schlitz is fine — a little softer and sweeter than PBR, but not so much as Miller High Life. It doesn’t really stand out much.”

If you’re drinking heavily during the Super Bowl — and you will be — consider pouring one out for Schlitz, a giant taken down by its own penny-pinching and refusal to learn from its mistakes. Pour one out for the mountain man who had his gusto taken away not by a weenie trying to trade his beer for another, but by the ruthlessness of the marketplace. And pour one out for everyone that got unnecessarily murdered making those ads, when they didn’t even end up selling any goddamn beer.