Mon 10 Nov 2008
Seventeen years ago, five scantily-clad women rode into the American consciousness and became lightning rods for political correctness. I am proud to say I had a hand in creating these advertising icons; the famous, the infamous Old Milwaukee Beer Swedish Bikini Team.
What began as a joke ended as a joke. The SBT died in peace. I regret we never got the chance to properly bury these vixens of beerdom. This is the story of what could have been.
In 1991, I was a group creative director at Hal Riney & Partners/San Francisco working on the Old Milwaukee account. The clients said they wanted a new campaign to appeal to young beer drinkers. They were open to fresh ideas for changing their long-running campaign as long as we kept the equities of said campaign:
l. Appeal to blue collar men
2. Feature outdoor activities
3. Maintain high energy
5. Keep the slogan “It doesn’t get any better than this…”
6. Be fun
Exhaustive research was conducted indicating young men like women, rock ‘n roll and partying/drinking lots and lots of beer. Thank goodness for research.
The premise of the Swedish Bikini Team campaign was to pick-up the action where the previous Old Milwaukee spots ended: a gathering of guys toasting the moment, saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this…” but then we’d show how it did indeed get better.
It got better with the tried and true trappings one found in any dumb beer commercial at that time: with the addition of rock ‘n roll, sexy women who have an aversion to fabric, food, and fun, fun, fun. Your basic youth fantasy.
Here’s a taste of the SBT:
The campaign was a spoof of all beer advertising, even Old Milwaukee’s. The Swedish Bikini Team was a Monty Pythonesque notion: five women who magically appear in beer spots. They were a send-up of beer commercial babes. They were a running joke, the only constant in the campaign.
The campaign was a blockbuster from the moment it hit the airwaves. It was written up in TV Guide as “this year’s Energizer Bunny.” The phrase ‘Swedish Bikini Team’ was used by Leno and Letterman in monologues, the Team appeared on “Married With Children”–– twice, and wonder of wonder, the women who played the Team agreed to do a pictorial for Playboy appearing sans uniforms. Imagine seeing a figment of your imagination on the cover of Playboy. It was surreal.
But fame soon turned to infamy. The Stroh Brewing Company was hit with a sexual harassment suit. The female attorney made the case the SBT advertising promoted an ‘atmosphere that encouraged sexual harassment.’ It was the year of the Kennedy rape trial and the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court Justice hearing, with randy action accusations made by Anita Hill. The media had a sexy new story to turn its spotlights on.
Soon the SBT came to represent the evil that lurks in all men’s loins. Maury Povich and other talk show pundits jumped on the bandwagon and took the moral high road against the SBT. These five women now represented Satan and all that is evil in the world. Other brewers vowed no more sex (in new spots, men would ogle beautiful women in slinky dresses that rode high on thighs–– but no sexist swimwear!).
In the thick of the controversy, I even got a call from a woman in Michigan upset because the Bikini Team members were from Sweden. “What’s wrong with American women?” she asked. “There’s plenty of beautiful women in this country!”
Now we were getting knocked for being unpatriotic.
Of course, the clients became concerned. While it was great to have buzz, it was awful to have notoriety. We proposed a final spot to make lemonade of the lemons we’d been pelted with.
This last spot would be a :60 opus on the Super Bowl to properly bury the Swedish Bikini Team while fanning the flames of publicity. It would have guys gathered around a campfire by a stream. One man would raise his can of Old Milwaukee and say, “Guys, it doesn’t get any better than this.” Then, an announcer would tell us how it could get better. A trout jumps from the stream into a frying pan over the campfire. Then the announcer would say, “And when the Swedish Bikini Team bungee corded into camp… “ but nothing would happen. Suddenly, the commercial director would barge into the scene demanding to know where the Team was. A production assistant appears holding bikinis and blonde wigs and shrugs. The director slumps down and sobs into a wig saying, “They’ll never work in this town again!”
The announcer speaks again: “And so, the Swedish Bikini Team, America’s favorite import, was never heard from again.” Cut to a scene of a frozen tundra at dusk. A super reads Somewhere in Sweden. The camera rolls across the tundra toward a cabin in the horizon. Rock music plays louder and louder the closer the camera gets to the cabin. The announcer says, Although legend has it on cold nights out on the Swedish tundra, you can still hear the call of the wild.” The camera zooms in on a window where a shade is drawn and a silhouette of the SBT dancing appears. The spot ends with an Old Milwaukee logo and “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
It would have been big. We even envisioned a promotional campaign themed “Whatever happened to the Swedish Bikini Team?”
But none of it came to pass. The client was nervous and pulled the plug. Instead, a new campaign was rolled out and the Swedish Bikini Team joined Mr. Whipple and Josephine the Plumber in the unemployment line for advertising icons. Boo hoo.
A few years back, Ad Age ran a survey on the most popular beer campaigns of all time. Amazingly, the Swedish Bikini Team came in second place, behind the first place Jocks campaign for Miller Lite in the 70’s and 80’s. Jocks ran for ten years and used a variety of celebrities and sports heroes. The SBT ran for seven months and used a bunch of unknown women who wore bad wigs and fairly conservative bikinis.
I suspect the campaign will eventually be immortalized as an answer in Trivial Pursuit, if it isn’t already. And for creating an ad campaign, I suppose it doesn’t get any better than that.
If you’re the CMO of a beer account, I’d love another at bat. Swimwear optional.