Recalling the legendary Swedish Bikini Team
Twenty years ago this month, America lost what might've been the greatest beer commercial of all time.
It was a sly, funny advertising campaign that, despite running for just seven months, generated a ton of publicity and became an instant icon of American popular culture. Two decades later, red-blooded beer drinkers may not remember the brand, but they sure remember its stars:
The Swedish Bikini Team.
They were five buxom platinum blondes who appeared in a series of TV spots through the summer of 1991 for Old Milwaukee. Whether rappelling from a cliff or motor-boating down a stream to spice up a guy's getaway weekend, the gals invariably proved that, yes, it does get better than this.
The commercials were, of course, a complete farce, a parody of the T&A that dominated TV in the '80s. By all accounts, they boosted sales for the brand.
But they were abruptly canceled when a group of female employees at Stroh's, which brewed Old Milwaukee at the time, filed a lawsuit that charged the commercials encouraged workplace harassment. They complained the company had done nothing to stop male brewery workers from tormenting them with lewd behavior and pornography — charges that were later settled out of court.
Whether the ad campaign actually encouraged the harassment was never established.
Today, the man behind the commercials says he has only one regret — that he was unable to give the team a fitting send-off.
"After the lawsuit, I knew (Stroh's) would kill them," said ad-man Patrick Scullin, who created the campaign for San Francisco's Hal Riney & Partners agency. "But I thought that, before we did, we should make lemons out of lemonade. I wanted to make one final commercial: Whatever became of the Swedish Bikini Team?"
If Scullin had his way, football fans would've enjoyed the bikini-clad girls one last time, in a 60-second spot during Super Bowl XXVI in January 1992.
"It would have been big," he said. "But the client walked away from it, and I can't say I blamed them."
Scullin said the ads grew out of a focus group that felt Old Milwaukee was "a tired brand — your father's beer." Its ads were formulaic.
"There would be a group of guys in an outdoor setting, doing manly things," said Scullin. "Then they'd crack open a beer and declare, 'It doesn't get any better than this.'
"We had young guys watch the ads, and one says, 'If that's all the better life gets, that sucks.'
"That was the creative inspiration. We showed it can always get better."
Baring lots of skin and wearing matching wigs, the buff, gyrating girls magically appeared at campsites and beach parties to liven things up. It was a spoof of a classic male fantasy, one that hardly wondered what sport this "team" was playing.
The team members — all professional American models — grew so popular, they got guest spots on TV shows. Letterman joked about them, and Playboy magazine put them on the cover.
"Then Stroh's was hit by the sexual harassment suit, and that's when the whole thing spun out of control," he said. "It became a media circus."
They pulled the plug, but not before the Swedish Bikini Team had become a permanent part of American beer-drinking lore.
Scullin, who now works for an Atlanta ad agency and writes an entertaining blog called The Lint Screen, marvels at the lasting memory of his short-lived creation. "Ad Age did a poll once that rated them the second-most popular beer campaign of all time," he said. "Number one was Miller Lite's 'Tastes great, less filling,' and those lasted for 10 years."