Minneapolis, MN

The Story of the Iconic Hamm's Bear (1953 - 1999)

Matt Reicher

Still image of a Hamm's TV commercial showing the Hamm's bear playing baseball, early 1950s.Photo byKirk Schnitker

The iconic Hamm's Bear was first sketched on a restaurant napkin by ad executive Cleo Hovel during a 'three-martini' lunch meeting at Freddie's restaurant in Minneapolis. Among those in attendance were Hovel and 'Betty' Burmeister of the Campbell-Mithun ad agency, Howard Swift, a TV animator from Swift-Chaplin in California, and representatives from Hamm's Brewery.

Campbell-Mithun had been hired by Hamm's in 1945 to extend the brewery's appeal beyond Minnesota and promote the virtues of the state to outsiders. Musician Ernie Garven was enlisted to pen a jingle to support the agency's 'Land of Sky-Blue Waters' campaign. He wrote the familiar tom-tom beat. The infectious beat Garven created, and the later accompanying song became part of advertising history.

The 1952 meeting was meant to help Hamm's, a successful local brewing company with national ambitions, to take the next step. The resulting commercial campaign, the first to use animated characters to sell beer, premiered on television in 1953.

Viewers immediately fell in love with the playful, innocent, clumsy, and accident-prone black bear. Product sales soon soared, and the company, which soon ranked eighth in the nation in sales, began planning to expand its production facilities.

The bear soon became the focal point of advertising campaigns on other mediums. His face could be found on billboards, newspaper ads, sports schedules, and other point-of-sale products. A bevy of promotional products followed, including calendars, playing cards, placemats, napkins, coasters, cigarette lighters, salt and pepper shakers, a piggy bank, and more.

Commercials told a genuinely entertaining miniature story. Viewers became so enthralled with the bear that local newspapers began printing the time Hamm's advertisements would air.

Advertisements, built on the backdrop of Minnesota's woods, waters, and wildlife, highlighted the state's scenic wonder and played a large part in luring tourists to the region. In 1960, Minnesota's Conservation Federation awarded the brewery for publicizing the state's "wonderful forests, lake resources, and recreational activities" in the land of sky-blue waters.

The ads won critical acclaim. In 1959, the Hamm's Bear commercials won the American Legion Auxiliary's first television commercial award. Six years later, the Audit Research Bureau reported the bear ranked "best liked" in national advertisements twenty-two times in a thirty-eight-month survey. The feat was even more impressive, considering Hamm's ads only aired in 31 of the 50 states.

In 1965, the Hamm family sold the company to Hartford, Connecticut's Heublein, Inc. for $63 million. Four years later, the company ended its long relationship with Campbell-Mithun, switching advertising agencies to J. Walter Thompson Co. The Hamm's Bear was retired.

Viewers rallied to support the oafish bear, but the brewery and new agency were ready to move on. While the advertisements were undoubtedly popular, company officials felt the Hamm's Bear had never asked for the sale, a cardinal sin in the advertising world.

In 1973, after five consecutive years of sinking sales, the Hamm's Bear was brought back. But he'd changed. 'Theodore H. Bear,' president of the Hamm's Brewing Company, replaced the loveable oaf of the past. The tattersall vested, tie-wearing 'spokes-bear' looked the same but acted markedly different from his predecessor.

The new campaign, which ran alongside a series of advertisements featuring 'Sasha,' a live-action Kodiak bear, didn't resonate with viewers. It was soon scrapped. The Hamm's Bear was returned to hibernation.

Heublein was a food and beverage corporation, not a brewer. In 1975, they sold the company for $6 million to a group of beer distributors, which turned around and sold it to Olympia Brewing Company.

In 1978, the Hamm's Bear, everyone's 'old friend,' made a comeback in print advertisements and promotional products. A short time later, he returned to television. After twelve years of poor sales, the Hamm's brand saw immediate improvement. Brewery officials credited several changes but believed the bear played a large part in their renewed success.

Ownership of the Hamm's Brewery continued to change in the 1980s and 1990s, but the bear remained. In 1999 'Advertising Age' named the Hamm's Bear advertising campaign the 75th best of the 20th century. A year later, the St. Paul Pioneer Press named the bear a runner-up on its list of "150 Influential Minnesotans of the Past 150 Years."

In 2000, the Miller Brewing Company, in response to building national pressure on companies to stop using cartoon characters to sell adult products, quit using the Hamm's Bear in ads. A Hamm's Bear statue was erected downtown in 2005 to honor Minnesota's favorite home-grown cartoon character.

The bear born on a napkin in 1952 was made famous by many incredible artists working in multiple mediums, including Albert Whitman, Howard Swift, Pete Bastiensen, Ray Tollefson, Cy Decosse, Art Babbitt, Patrick DesJarlait, and Bill Stein. Many years after the final commercial ran on television, people fondly remember Minnesota's famous advertising icon from the 'Land of Sky-Blue Waters.'


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