Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Milwaukee-based Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company held the gold crown as America’s top brewer. Its flagship beer, Schlitz, known as “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” was a beloved and iconic American-style lager.
Then a series of business decisions, including a disastrous ad campaign, dubbed the “Drink Schlitz or I’ll kill you” campaign, precipitated the downfall of America’s biggest beer brand. It became known as the “Schlitz mistake.”
By the late 1950s, Schlitz lost its top title to another quintessential American beer brand: Anheuser-Busch. Although it still held its own as the nation’s second-largest-producing brewery, its drop in ranking would be a sign of things to come.
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During the 1970s, in an attempt to cut production costs and keep up with growing demands, Schlitz’s owners decided to shorten the beer’s brewing time by implementing a process called “accelerated batch fermentation.” They also opted to replace its malted barley with a cheaper ingredient, corn syrup, and began experimenting with the use of a silica gel to prevent haze once the beer was chilled. (It was obviously a very different time.)
Soon Schlitz’s slogan as the “most carefully brewed beer in the world” was no longer applicable. Sales dropped as Schlitz’s customers grew frustrated with the brand and started returning cases of beer. In 1976, Schlitz recalled more than 10 million cans and bottles of beer, costing the company over $1.4 million in losses. In 2020, that’s the equivalent of $6.3 million.
In an effort to stem its declining sales and improve its spiraling reputation, the company hired an ad agency, Leo Burnett & Co., to launch four television spots. The commercials featured actors portraying fierce Schlitz loyalists, including a fictional boxer and a lumberjack with a “pet” cougar.
In the ads, an off-screen voice asks if they’d like to try a different beer than Schlitz, and the macho men respond with vaguely menacing comments. (“I’m gonna play Picasso and put you on the canvas!”) The ads’ tagline was, “If you don’t have Schlitz, you don’t have gusto.”
It was weird. The ads were an immediate failure, leaving viewers uneasy and wondering if they had just been threatened by their favorite (or formerly favorite) beer brand. Ten weeks after they first aired, Schlitz pulled the commercials off the air and fired their ad men.
But the ads would achieve a lasting infamy. Their failure during such a critical time for the brand proved to be detrimental to its already-crumbling reputation.
Schlitz closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1981. It would eventually be redeveloped into an office park known as “Schlitz Park.” In 1982, the company was purchased by the Stroh Brewery Company and later, in 1999, sold to the Pabst Brewing Company, which produces the Schlitz brand today.
Although it has fallen from grace as one of America’s most popular beers, Schlitz is still alive today and remains a sentimental favorite in the Midwest.