Leo Burnett’s “Drink Schlitz Or I’ll Kill You” Ad Campaign
Posted by Bob Skilnik on April 10, 2008
In September of 1977, a group of Leo Burnett’s top officials met in their 10th floor conference room in the Prudential Building in Chicago to view four commercials using the resurrected gusto theme. The commercials had been put together quickly, a reaction to Schlitz’s insistence on getting something ready as soon as possible.
Burnett employees had researched their commercial ideas by taking a simple storyboard with a sketched sequence of the proposed commercials to the Woodfield Mall in nearby Schaumburg, Illinois. Passers-by were asked by the Burnett people if they understood the commercials. Because of the urgency imposed upon the advertising agency by the brewery, the Burnett people simply wanted to make sure that their initial efforts were on the right track. As a result, they did not ask for the subjects’ opinions as to whether they either liked the product or its proposed style of presentation. With assurances that the test subjects simply understood the concept of the storyboards, the four commercials went into film production.
The commercials varied from one featuring a Muhammad Ali-like boxer with a full entourage to a rugged outdoorsman with his pet mountain lion. In each of the four commercials, an off-camera voice asked the lead characters to give up their Schlitz beer for another brand. The commercials, as Richard Stanwood, at the time Burnett’s director of creative services, would later recall, were meant to be “interruptive.”
At the screening of the new commercials, the Burnett people watched as the boxer told a disembodied voice that he was going to knock him “…down for the count” for even suggesting a switch from the Schlitz label. The outdoorsman in one of the following commercials told his pet mountain lion to calm down after his choice of Schlitz beer was also challenged and snarled back to the animal, “Just a minute, babe. I’ll handle this.”
The group of fifteen Burnett creatives approved the series of commercials without objection as did Schlitz representatives who viewed the commercials soon after.
The reactions to the commercials once they went public were almost immediate; people hated them. Burnett officials were appalled at the reaction.
Jack Powers, who managed the Schlitz account at Burnett, was stunned by the swift public response to the commercials. “I can assure you that we have no desire to threaten the people of the United States. It (the commercials) was supposed to be fun, tongue-in-cheek stuff.”
At Schlitz, the feeling about the unexpected consumer backlash to the series of commercials was much worse. “A really great tragedy-—really, really bad,” a brewery spokesman admitted.
Ten weeks after the commercials first began to air, Schlitz management ordered them pulled. Soon after, the Leo Burnett ad agency was fired by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.
The short-lived run of commercials would go down in advertising history as “The Drink Schlitz or I’ll Kill You” ad campaign.
* The complete story of the demise of Schlitz, including comments from Uihlein family members (major stockholders of Schlitz) can be found in my book, BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago. The aftermath is continued with the detailing of an attempt by Pabst to buy Schlitz, the blocked merger of G. Heileman and Schlitz by the federal government, and the managerial conflicts that hastened the end of Stroh after it acquired Schlitz.