Our Take

Super Bowl XV was Last Call for Schlitz

Bryan Dent
Written by Bryan Dent

In days gone by, back when the Raiders were actually good, Schlitz Brewing Co. attempted a Hail Mary to revive its flagging fortunes: a live commercial airing during halftime of Super Bowl XV between the Raiders and Eagles. It would be called “The Great American Beer Switch,” featuring a blind taste test among 100 self-professed “loyal Michelob drinkers,” voting in real time on which beer they preferred between Michelob and Schlitz. But the gamble didn’t pay off the way Schlitz hoped it would.

For decades Schlitz ran neck-and-neck with Anheuser-Busch for beer supremacy in the U.S. Schlitz was the first official beer sponsor of a Super Bowl, years before A-B awoke to the possibilities. Viewers of legendary Super Bowl III, between Joe Namath’s Jets and the Colts, saw Schlitz’s TV spot featuring McLean Stevenson, soon to be famous as Col. Blake on M*A*S*H. Budweiser’s first Super Bowl commercial — a dull ad showcasing an athletic skier rewarded with a Bud at the end of the trail — didn’t show up until Super Bowl IX in 1975.

But in the 1970s Schlitz committed a series of fatal errors. First was a short-sightedly stupid effort at cost-cutting by aging the beer for a briefer length of time — the upshot of which was an embarrassing recall of 10 million bottles of beer at a cost of $1.4 million. Schlitz was also late to the light beer boom, and Schlitz Light, when it finally appeared, never gained any traction.

Staggered by these blows, Schlitz tired to regain its footing with more TV advertising. It shelled out for a series of spots during Super Bowl X in 1976 between the Cowboys and Steelers. But the uninspired ads, showing people surfing and playing touch football, managed to get overshadowed by the “Xerox monks,” now considered one of the best Super Bowl ads ever.

In 1977, Schlitz produced an ad considered one of the worst ever: the so-called “Drink Schlitz or I’ll Kill You” spot, in which the viewer is menaced by a mountain lion. The ad was so hated by the public, a Schlitz ad exec was memorably forced to respond, “I can assure you that we have no desire to threaten the people of the United States.” Airing during football season with the intent of leading into the Super Bowl, it was instead pulled in a matter of weeks.

Its position deteriorating by the year, Schlitz had one more Super Bowl splash to try, the Michelob/Schlitz Great American Beer Switch. MC’d by an actual NFL referee in zebra stripes, 100 people sampled the beers off air, and when the commercial went live, pulled a lever to indicate their preference. An electronic football scoreboard tallied the results: 50 Michelob drinkers “switched” to Schlitz. Of course, macrobrew was no better in 1981 than it is now, and by the law of probabilities any random group of people were just as likely to find any other pair of macrobrews indistinguishable. Schlitz spun it as a win — at the then-staggering cost of $1.7 million for 60 seconds of airtime.

In fact, if all 100 had switched it probably wouldn’t have mattered by that point. In June 1981, a mere five months after the Beer Switch commercial aired, Schlitz closed its Milwaukee brewery. Between 1974 and 1981 Schlitz Brewing had lost an estimated 90% of its value, a collapse so profound that it’s been compared to the fall of Bear Stears finance house in 2008. Shortly after the Milwaukee plant shut down the pitiful remains of Schlitz were sold at fire sale rates to Stroh Brewery Company. Stroh’s was itself sold for parts in 1999.

Today the Schlitz label is owned by an operation called TSG Consumer Partners, and the beer lingers on in certain markets as a nostalgia brand. But the last hurrah of Schlitz as a big-game player was thirty-five years ago, at halftime of Super Bowl XV.


picture credit:  http://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/beer-in-ads457-if-you-like-beer-youll-love-schlitz-again/


About the author

Bryan Dent

Bryan Dent

Leave a Comment

1 Comment

  • […] seldom found outside the Great Lakes. In 1982, the Stroh family bet the farm in acquiring most of Schlitz Brewing Company. Overnight Stroh’s became the third-biggest beer company in America and a national […]