Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years. He has written four books on TV, including “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night” and “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
When I was in college in the 1970s, my friends and I frequently bought a case of Schlitz beer to fuel a weekend of socializing.
It was a popular choice, not because it was “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” as it boasted, but because it was relatively cheap, and actually had a pleasant, and pretty distinct, lager taste.
But by the late 1970s, people were buying cans of Schlitz and literally spitting it out. The taste had – inexplicably to many consumers – turned to garbage, though stronger words were used at the time. According to beer historian Martyn Cornell, it seems what happened was directly tied to a decision by the beer’s maker, the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, to incrementally change some ingredients and accelerate the brewing process, which in turn altered the taste.
It got so bad that after droves of consumers had bolted for Budweiser, Miller Lite or Coors, Schlitz launched an infamous ad campaign in which actors playing Schlitz drinkers – a boxer, a lumberjack with a hungry cougar – threatened to punch you out or have you mauled and eaten for lunch if you dared take away the “gusto” of a mug of Schlitz. These became some of the most memorable commercials in TV history, nicknamed the “Drink Schlitz or I’ll Kill You” campaign.
If you’re a young beer drinker, you likely have never even heard of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, because since 1982 it has been resting in peace in the dustbin of history. (You can buy something called Schlitz some places today, a recreation of the old formula, but it’s now brewed by Pabst.)
This is not a fable. This really happened. A company, once actually the leading brand in its field, came under new management, which made a conscious decision – in pursuit of bigger market share and profits – that amounted to sabotaging its own product. And was rewarded by going out of business.
Is there a reason to now recount this cautionary tale in American business schools?
Well, has anyone noticed an immensely popular brand undergoing a divisive public upheaval that has left many of its users contemplating abandoning the brand because they can’t tolerate its taste anymore?
Yes, I’m referring to Twitter.
Of course, Twitter is not beer, though it can be intoxicating. (Also not safe when driving.)
But Twitter does have new management, and a leader who seems to have set a course to radically alter its ingredients; and yes, a significant portion of its loyal consumer base has become disaffected and unhappy.
This is anecdotally evident on Twitter itself, where many long-time users have publicly lamented, some of billionaire owner Elon Musk’s moves (like opening the site to posters previously banned for things like glorifying violence). There’s also the unmistakable increase in slurs and hate speech, according to researchers from Montclair State, who found hate speech increased within the hours after Musk’s takeover; and the personal attacks on some prominent posters by the CEO himself.
Unlike beer, though, Twitter is not exactly a product, but a cultural and informational force, one that impacts the national (and international) discourse, and even helps to shape world events. And unlike Schlitz drinkers, the millions of consumers of Twitter do not have some extremely available and widely consumed alternatives sitting right there on the shelf (or freezer).
Indeed, that’s certainly one major reason there doesn’t seem to have been anything close to a mass exodus – yet – from Twitter by those repelled by the turn it seems to be taking. Several options have attracted users looking for alternatives – sites like Post.News, Mastodon and Hive Social – but those trying out those platforms might be hedging their bets by keeping their Twitter accounts open, likely hoping what they like about Twitter will somehow survive the current upheaval. NPR critic Eric Deggans recently tweeted that he is “not ceding anything - a social media network or country - to people whose values I don’t respect without a fight.” And Alexander Vindman recently said in an interview with MSNBC that he wouldn’t be “intimidated off Twitter.”
This means it’s highly unlikely Twitter is reserving a spot next to Schlitz in the Hall of Fame of Business Collapses, even despite the fact that several companies have paused advertising on the platform. New research from the firm Bot Sentinel estimates that more than 875,000 users deactivated their accounts between October 27, when Musk’s Twitter purchase became official, and November 1. This hardly amounts to wholesale rejection of the site that made trending famous. The site reported having 217 million daily users at the end of 2021.
I am still on Twitter. I have a base of followers, and have found the information on the site both interesting and valuable. So like others who are still evaluating, I’m watching to see if the ugliness will subside.
Of course, when it comes to Schlitz, that’s a different story. I never drank it after college. Once the taste went south, I went elsewhere.
But there were surely moments when Schlitz brew-masters were convinced the storm would just blow over and everybody would eventually just drink down whatever Schlitz was selling.
And like it.