In 1976, the Schlitz Brewing Company of Milwaukee, WI, was the number two beer maker in the United States, its roughly $600 million in sales almost equal to that of industry leader Anheuser-Busch. But trouble loomed. The growing popularity of name-brand light beers, increased availability of niche and foreign brews, and a change in Schlitz’s brewing process, done to make its namesake beer cheaper to mass-produce, all were taking a toll on the market share of “the most carefully brewed beer in the world.”

So, in the Summer of 1977, an new CEO at Schlitz abandoned their heretofore successful “Go for the Gusto” slogan, and turned to the ad men of Leo Burnett to craft a message that would help increase the brewer’s short-term profits (the time between investment and payback was apparently too long for new management). What the boys from Burnett produced was a campaign that will live in infamy:

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 reactions to the commercials once they went public were almost immediate; people hated them. Burnett officials were appalled at the reaction.

. . . .

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.

Though perhaps just the most obvious symptom of a systemic problem, the campaign sounded the death knell for “the drink that made Milwaukee famous.” Within a year, the company was in the red; by 1982, Schlitz had lost 90 percent of its market share. The company was sold, and sold again, and by the turn of the century, the brand had virtually disappeared from taps across the country.

I wanted to show you an example of these admonishing ads; I waded through hours of YouTubes to find one (I really did), but, alas, it seems that when Schlitz pulled these ads, they really pulled them. Fortunately, as luck would have it, I was watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” last night, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell did a remarkable reenactment:

We’ve been scared. We’ve been hiding behind shower curtains. It’s time to get out there and campaign about the good stuff we’ve done. . . .The opposition is being influenced more and more by wackos. . . . Our base ought to wake up. And anybody who’s watching this show who thought they might not vote ‘cause they are a little disappointed over this and a little disappointed over that, get over it. The stakes are huge; we gotta get out there and vote.

OK, maybe that’s not quite as good as the Schlitzing we got last week from White House barback Joe Biden (“Get in gear, man. . . . [Progressives] better get energized because the consequences are serious.”), but both spots have clearly been crafted by the same (m)ad men. In either case, the message is clear (OK, maybe “clear” is not the best word, but bear with me–I’ll start again. . . .). In either case, the message is clear: Vote for Democrats, or else!

I don’t believe that Rendell or Biden—or, for that matter, President Obama, who has also gone for the gusto lately—threatened to kill us, or even hurt us all that much (though I hear punching is much in vogue), but they are making a dire threat all the same.

[Bachmann terror overdrive! . . . after the jump.]

Bachmanns and Issas and Boehners, oh my!

What they are threatening is vague—“investigations” of some unnamed sort, “more of the same,” “wackos” and “Tea Party Republicans”—but it is meant to be scary. And what they are saying through these threats is that if any of this terror comes to pass, we’ll know whom to blame: those nitpicky, “glass half empty” voters of the professional and amateur left.

Blame game aside, for argument’s sake, let’s take the Democrats’ strategy at something like face value. Is this, as implemented, a winning campaign?

To begin with, examine the “or else.” “Investigations” and “subpoena power” are probably meant to remind us of Clinton’s second term, when a newly emboldened Republican majority brought the Congress to a standstill with impeachment hearings and a trial. I would be first to express my disgust with what that vintage of Republican majority did–it was conniving, irresponsible, and inexcusable. But, do Democrats really want to remind America about what was at the center of that impeachment? In a year when GOP sex scandals are ripe and bountiful, why give folks an excuse to shrug and say, “Both sides fuck around?”

Then there is the “more of the same” or “reversing back to the same” threat. My first thought—or my thought about what some of the truly disenfranchised might think—is, “Which same? The bad economy from before we elected Democrats, or the bad economy from after?” And there is even a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that says, flat out, that most Americans don’t believe Republicans will do the same things they did the last time they held power.

And what about those “Tea Party Republicans?” Evidently, some consultant has told Democratic insiders that this is messaging gold, because darn near every Dem surrogate within six feet of a microphone has used the term. Meanwhile, everyone from anonymous White House officials to the President himself has told reporters the strategy is to tie Republicans to the “extremist” Tea Party.

Rachel Maddow praised this move in the same show that featured Rendell, and criticized some inside the party who expressed dismay and warned of a backlash. While I will agree with Maddow that you do not need to refrain from calling the GOP “extremists” because you might have some chance of negotiating something with them if you do (nevergonnahappen), I have my doubts about the amount of benefit you will gain from drawing a circle around the “Tea Party” and the GOP.

Plenty of polls show Americans are dissatisfied with the sitting government at near-record levels. While not every race has proven to fit neatly into the “anti-establishment” storyline, it seems clear that positioning oneself as separate or different from the Washington establishment is a consistent talking point. The GOP crashes that have the national media rubbernecking from Nevada to Delaware are the result of a minority, yes, but a dedicated, enthusiastic minority, mobilizing to vote for relative outsiders over more established government hands.

So, why, in a year where being affiliated with any Beltway power structure is seen as political deadweight, are the Democrats falling all over themselves to tell voters that the previously stale, establishment GOP has been taken over by a fresh group of populist outsiders? How is it that we are to automatically believe that this new crop of “wackos” will do the same things as the old-timers that the Tea Partiers worked so hard to replace?

From a messaging perspective, you can see the inherent contradiction. And a contradictory, confusing message is likely a failing one. Confusion breeds inaction, and inaction is not the answer to the Democrats’ all-consuming enthusiasm gap.

That giant sucking sound

I have already gone on at some length about how an election is not a situation where you can hope to win by simply “sucking less” (and it is sucking less that is still very much underneath most of the Dem messaging). You have to leverage your benefits, and those benefits have to be apparent. Voting is not compulsory in the US, and if the choice for many is between “sucks” and “sucks less,” staying away from the polls is a very understandable third option. That leaves the truly motivated, the enthusiastic Tea Partiers, if you will, to dominate an almost certain low turnout election.

In 1976, there were fresh choices for beer drinkers, and Schlitz’s reaction was to abandon their core identity as well as their winning formula. They chose to eschew long-term investment for short-term profit, and when threatened by fast-weakening consumer enthusiasm, they decided to threaten their consumers right back. Threatening consumers did not work for Schlitz, and that was in a category where people pretty much understand the immediate benefits of their choices.

For Democratic leaders, threatening unenthusiastic voters with vague pictures of doom and gloom, when much of what the voters see right now is already pretty gloomy, is not going to “wake up” very many of the rank and file. Promising little else in terms of benefits if Democrats stay in power—little beyond “there’s more to do”—does not provide enough positive motivation to engender enthusiasm.

Interestingly, in 2008, Pabst, the current owners of the Schlitz name, began to reintroduce Schlitz, selling the benefits of its back-formulated, pre-1970s taste. In that same year, Americans elected a president who asked them to vote their hopes and not their fears. That was a winning strategy. Why, only two years later, has that president and his party chosen to ask us (or, more like, order us) to vote our fears?