A vintage Halloween-themed Schlitz ad presages light beer
Everyone knows that there’s no better time to start carving things than when you’re a few beers in.
The curious copy on this 1956 Schlitz ad encourages us to “notice people at ease today,” like, presumably our handsome happy couple here. “Light refreshment is half the fun,” leaving to the imagination what the other half might be.
What’s interesting about this ad is that it plays up the lightness of the beer. “With meals, especially, you appreciate this lightness. Schlitz leaves you feeling refreshed without feeling full.” As it happens, actual light beer wouldn’t be invented for another decade. In 1967 American biochemist Joseph Owades created a brew, Gablinger’s, that was lower in alcohol and calories compared to regular beer. In some respects, Schlitz—in ‘56 the top-selling beer brand in the world—was ahead of its time. So it’s ironic that when Miller Lite was introduced nationally in 1975, it was briefly catapulted to the No. 2 spot in the U.S. (A short-lived Schlitz Light had a brief run in the 1970s but the brand oddly did not lean into the product.) “Budweiser Light” would debut in 1982, change the game and put a significant dent in Schlitz’s business, which was already in decline.
A disastrous 1977 campaign by Leo Burnett certainly hadn’t helped. In a series of commercials, an off-camera voice suggests to a tough-guy type (a boxer in one ad, a lumberjack with a cougar in another) that they switch brands. The suggestion results in threats of physical harm. The campaign, derisively dubbed by the industry “drink Schlitz or I’ll kill you,” was pulled after 10 weeks. It perseveres on YouTube, though.
That’s not to say the ’50s were all smiles and pumpkins for the “beer that made Milwaukee famous” (and made a “loser” out of Jerry Lee Lewis). A 76-day strike in 1953 slowed production so much that Anheuser-Busch was able to briefly surpass Schlitz in the U.S. beer market for the first time. They were back at the top of the heap when this Halloween ad ran, “brewed with just the kiss of hops for delicate flavor. Not a bit bitter.” Yet.