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 motorboating down a stream to spice up a guys’ 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 said 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 adman 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 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 women 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. David Letterman joked about them, and Playboy magazine put them on the cover and inside, where they posed semi-nude.
“Then Stroh’s was hit by the sexual-harassment suit, and that’s when the whole thing spun out of control,” Scullin 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 is now creative director with the Ames Scullin O’Haire ad agency in Atlanta 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. “No. 1 was Miller Lite’s ‘Tastes great, less filling,’ and those lasted for 10 years.”
SIDEBAR: “It didn’t get any better than this”
ULLA SWENSEN never made it to the Super Bowl, and neither did her teammates Karin Kristensen, Hilgar Oblief, Eva Jacobsen and Uma Thorensen.
But 20 years later, Swensen – in real life, Peggy Trentini – looks back on her shortened season as a member of the Swedish Bikini Team as one of highlights of her life. “We had our 15 minutes of fame,” she said in a telephone conversation from her home in Orange County, Calif.
Trentini played the captain of the jiggling, bikini-clad team, a spot she won after a huge Hollywood cattle call in 1991 for Old Milwaukee’s controversial commercials. At the time, she was a twenty-something lingerie model and B-movie actress. Her biggest role might’ve been as one of those sexy Carson Art Players on “The Tonight Show.”
The ads’ notoriety put her on a larger stage.
She helped get the team onto TV’s “Married With Children” and, in January 1992, the cover of Playboy magazine.
“But then we got a call from Peter Stroh’s,” she said referring to the brewery boss whose company was coincidentally embroiled in a workplace sexual-harassment case. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, girls, but we’ve got to pull the ads.’
“The women’s libbers just hated it.”
Trentini’s acting career continued for 10 more years. She appeared in straight-to-video movies and soft-core cable-TV porn. She played Vampire Girl No. 1 in “Vampirella” and – in a bit of typecasting – the Swedish ambassador in 1999’s “Desirable Liaisons.”
“It was just a fun, great time,” she said of her brief stint on the Swedish Bikini Team. “Like they say, it didn’t get any better than this.”