got milk?

By Douglas B. Holt, L’Oreal Professor of Marketing, University of Oxford

What could you say about milk? It was white and came in gallons. People felt they knew all there was to know about it, so it was hard to find a strategic platform.
– Jeff Manning

In June 1993, Jeff Manning, Executive Director, was hired by the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) to revive sagging milk consumption in California. A month later, he hired San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to create a new ad campaign for milk. “We weren’t going to turn around a 15-year decline in per capita in one year, but we did believe that at least for certain portions of the population, we could flatten it out and start to move it up,” said Manning. Following Manning’s lead, Jeff Goodby, the agency’s co-founder and chief creative, had worked with a team of planners and creatives at his agency to create got milk?, a campaign that became one of the decade’s most popular and critically-acclaimed ad campaigns. (1)

CMPB: Marketing Milk as a Commodity

Concerned with long-term declining milk sales, California’s largest milk processors voted to fund a marketing board that would be charged with creating advertising dedicated to selling milk. The processors agreed to finance the California Milk Processor Board (2) by contributing three cents for every gallon of milk they processed. This assessment allowed for a $23 million/year marketing budget. On a per-capita basis (California’s population was roughly 20% of the US), this budget approximated those of the largest national auto, beer, finance, and pharmaceutical brands. The processors agreed that they would assess the new board’s effectiveness every three years, As their first act, the board had hired Manning and he reported to CMPB’s board of nine representatives.

Prior to the CMPB’s formation, the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), had for many years produced the “Milk Does a Body Good” ad campaign. The campaign echoed the government’s nutrition program, which encouraged people to drink a few glasses of milk each day to maintain their health. As Manning took over, consumers evidently still believed that milk was nutritious. “Ninety-three or -four percent of the people already said milk was good for you,” Manning recalled. “And 90% said it had calcium, and a fair percentage said that calcium helped prevent osteoporosis. The problem was that the old ads didn’t change consumers’ behavior.” Consumers-and especially kids and teens-still considered milk to be as boring as a beverage could possibly be. Since people thought milk was good for them but sales volume was falling anyway, Manning felt that his first decision was handed to him: he would abandon the nutrition theme.

Shifts in Beverage Consumption Perceptions of Milk

Historically, dairy advertising and public relations efforts, along with government programs, had helped to build the widely held belief that drinking milk was the key to good health, particularly for children. Drinking milk linked the consumer to the dairy farms out in the rural countryside, a space implied to be healthier, both morally and hygienically. Later, this “wholesome” theme was expanded to include the notion that milk was nutritious.

Beginning in earnest after World War II, the US government, schools, and doctors had all promoted milk as a nutritious drink, a necessary component of a healthy diet, especially for children. Once each day, school administrators had lined up children in front of stainless steel milk dispensers and gave them each a paper cup of cool, fresh milk. The US Department of Agriculture had recommended nutritional requirements which divided the human diet into four “food groups”- meats & fish, fruits & vegetables, cereals & grains, and dairy products.

Teachers included these recommendations into their lessons about health and nutrition. Health care professionals like school nurses and pediatricians taught mothers that it was important to drink four glasses of milk each day. By the 1950s, milk had assumed an important role in what people thought was a normal, nutritious lifestyle. In the United States then, milk had been a family staple. On the contrary, people thought of soft drinks as recreational leisure products. Sodas, then, were in a great position to represent many of the things that milk did not. Beginning with Pepsi in the 1960s-and then followed by virtually every other soda-beverage makers began to associate their sweet carbonated drinks with youthful lifestyles. By the 1970s, soda makers’ aggressive marketing was helping to erode milk’s place in consumers’ diets, stealing “share of stomach.” People were drinking less milk, substituting soft drinks, even when they were at home.

Flavor and Packaging Innovation

Marketers were also aggressively reconfiguring the way beverages were packaged. Drinks of all varieties came in containers that numbered hundreds of shapes and even more colors. New, easy-open containers were resealable so that people could drink from them with little effort while they did other things, like drive cars, ride bicycles, and use exercise machines. Unlike milk’s messy cardboard box, its competing beverages traveled well.

Manning couldn’t control how milk was packaged and he knew that it was still sold in monotonous cardboard boxes or translucent plastic jugs. And milk’s Spartan label, typically printed in a single color, likely featured only nutritional information and an expiration date, hardly enticing draws compared to the packaging of the new, competitive beverages. On the variety front, processors had experimented with an innovation or two, but to Manning, lactose-free milk offered little encouragement: “Milk was white and came in gallons.”

Competitors’ Symbolism

Finally, Manning had to face milk’s seemingly most intractable hurdle. “Milk was boring,” he said. Compared to the proliferation of brightly colored beverages in myriad, imaginative packages, milk had an image problem. Milk was still associated with domesticity and it was apparent to him that most consumers were no longer excited by the tamed life.

If milk had represented a domesticity that had fallen out of style, many of its new competitors had accrued altogether different meanings-like youthful rebellion, eclectic individuality, and streetsmart fashion. The most successful new brands each used advertising to help create this symbolism. In the 1990s, Gatorade, Snapple, Mountain Dew, and Sprite led the way.

Snapple. With its eclectic range of “100% Natural” teas and juice- drinks, Snapple was a huge success. While consumers loved these beverages for their innovative flavors, it was their quirky advertising and promotions that attracted many drinkers. Snapple presented itself as the anti-corporate beverage company. For instance, they aired poorly produced ads starring Ivan Lendl mispronouncing the drink and a whole series of ads that featured their no-nonsense customer service manager, “Wendy,” answering customers’ letters. They also hired Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, both of whom enjoyed anti-authority reputations, to hawk the drink.

Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew sales rocketed behind the success of the “Do the Dew” advertising campaign. The ads featured four irreverent “slacker” guys who thrived on ultra-dangerous stunts. The ads claimed, with tongue in cheek, that Mountain Dew was even more potent and daring than these risky feats. The ads often parodied popular culture and incorporated energetic rock music.

Gatorade. Originally formulated to combat dehydration problems for the University of Florida football team, Gatorade became the “functional” beverage of choice. The brand was advertised using Michael Jordan (“Be Like Mike”) and purported to show how Gatorade helped the basketball superstar to achieve a high level of performance. By the early 1990s, the drink had evolved from an athlete’s isotonic to a popular everyday drink.

Sprite. Behind their “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, Sprite sales increased steadily from 1993 to 1998. The ads were especially popular with young consumers and told drinkers not to pay attention to conventional marketing pleas. Instead, consumers were supposed to adopt Sprite’s playful cynicism, which often featured leading rap artists and professional basketball players which, together, wove Sprite into hip-hop culture popular amongst America’s urban metro youth.

The got milk? Campaign

Although milk sales were declining, Manning’s research showed that 70% of Californians claimed to drink milk frequently. One rule of thumb in fast-moving packaged goods is that it’s easier to get current customers to consume more than it is to convert new users. Based on this logic, Manning and Goodby quickly agreed that their best hope of reviving sales was to prod this 70% to increase their consumption. Recalling a strategy that his Ketchum co-worker had explored a few years earlier, Manning suggested that people who drank milk tended to think of it as an accompaniment to certain sweet and sticky foods that they loved. To explain this “blank-and-milk” notion, Manning told Goodby that many people who drank milk did so with brownies, cookies, or peanut butter sandwiches. Perhaps, Manning suggested, the key for the new campaign could be found in this food-beverage connection.

Goodby’s team fielded qualitative research and learned that many consumers indeed linked milk with sweet, sticky snacks. Pushing further, the researchers flipped around the question: how do people feel when they’re eating something that demanded milk to wash it down, but don’t have milk in the house? Focus group respondents placed in this situation were upset, they felt deprived. They were able to convey viscerally the feeling of having a brownie or cookie remnants stuck in their throat, calling out for a gulp of milk to cleanse the palette. Goodby and his team used this consumer insight as the spark for what came to be called the deprivation strategy: rather than selling milk as a complement to certain foods, instead the strategy became to remind milk drinkers of the
anxiety and disappointment that came when milk wasn’t available at crucial moments. Working to distill this milk-deprived emotional state into a phrase that everyone might instantly understand, Goodby coined the campaign’s well-known grammatically-challenged tagline, “got milk?”

The agency created a few print ads which showed snacks like chocolate cupcakes and cookies, each with a bite taken out of them and the text, “got milk?” Manning thought that they perfectly expressed the way people felt about a moment when they craved milk and encouraged Goodby to pursue the “milk deprivation strategy” for television ads.

Manning’s research showed that 88% of milk was consumed in the home. He and Goodby agreed that their milk deprivation ads would incorporate this reality. The ads would show people running out of milk when they needed it most, in their homes. “The whole campaign was based on somebody sitting at home thirty feet from the fridge with the TV on,” said Manning. “We wanted them to feel the pain.”

Launch Ads

Goodby’s team produced six ads to launch the campaign. Several of these ads created a stir. The first, Aaron Burr, became one of the most popular ads of the early Nineties. Burr featured an odd and seemingly irrelevant situation for milk deprivation: an iconoclastic history nut who fails to win a prize on a call-in radio show on history trivia because his mouth is glued shut with a peanut butter sandwich.

Market research confirmed what Goodby and Manning had hoped for. Respondents indicated that drinking milk was becoming a fashionable thing to do. “Suddenly, drinking milk was cool,” recalled Manning. Manning and Goodby were as buoyed by their campaign’s popularity as they were with milk’s improving sales. “The response came in waves. The advertising community was first and they loved it. Aaron Burr won the Best in Show award at the 1994 Clio Awards, the advertising industry’s equivalent of the motion picture industry’s Academy Awards, or Oscars.

In 1994, California’s milk sales increased for the first time in over a decade, to 755 million gallons from the previous year’s 740 million. Within months, the “got milk?” advertisements became famous. The tagline, “got milk?” spawned countless imitations wherein “milk” was exchanged for virtually any product or concept. Everywhere you looked, publicity-seekers were tagging onto the campaign by converting the slogan to suit their purposes.

Aaron Burr

Boat and Santa

Making Milk Cool

Elated, Manning and Goodby sought to extend this dual strategy. They wanted to continue with the deprivation strategy, stimulating people to drink milk when they ate complementary foods. And, in addition, they also wanted to seize the opportunity to revamp milk’s symbolism. Their second round of ads would continue to push milk’s image from boring and old-fashioned drink to one that was cool and interesting.

In May, 1994, they broadcasted an ad that immediately scored high marks for its “cool factor.” In Heaven, an obnoxious yuppie character found that hell was a place where giant chocolate chip cookies and milk cartons were ubiquitous. Unfortunately, the cartons were empty. To adults confronting the cut-throat 1990s job market, Heaven proved nearly as popular and durable as Burr.



Californians now were taken by the got milk? campaign and well understood the deprivation idea. So Manning and Goodby wanted to broaden and accentuate the eating situations that evoked the need for a milk chaser. Rather than treating milk-worthy foods in a generic way, they decided to co-brand with well-known complements.

A year later Manning broadcast another co-branding ad, this time using the popular cookie, Oreos. Shot in black-and-white to emphasize its historical setting, Oreo Kane mimicked the famous movie Citizen Kane. The spot featured a crusty CEO presiding over a Gilded Age board meeting, demanding better suggestions for names for the company’s new cookie.

Oreo Kane


“Teens-the 12-18 demographic-were without question the number one target
of all the beverage advertising,” Manning said. “Because you wanted to get them early on, grab them, get them into your franchise so that maybe they’d stay Coke users or Snapple users or Gatorade users or whatever.” Research data showed that consumers steadily drank less milk as they aged and that their shift away from drinking milk began around the age of 10. As young consumers progressed through their teen years, their milk consumption steadily declined while their consumption of other beverages steadily increased. Consumers between 18 and 24 drank 44 gallons of soft drinks, but they drank only 17.2 gallons of milk.

Throughout the “got milk?” campaign, Goodby and Manning had hoped that their advertising would appeal to younger audiences and increase their milk consumption. Once again, however, Manning’s research indicated that while adults loved the spots that featured children and teens, younger consumers resonated less enthusiastically with them. “We didn’t advertise to teens,” Manning said.

Nevertheless, a number of ads that featured teen protagonists proved to be popular among teens. Interrogation, for instance, was about a young man in a leather jacket being questioned by two plainclothes cops. In November, 1996, Manning broadcasted Isolation, which told the story of a university student who’d agreed to be a research subject and to live inside an observation chamber alone for thirty days. Both ads tested well among teen and young adult males.



Extending the Creative Idea: Town Without Milk

Despite the campaign’s popularity, by 1997 Goodby had begun to question whether the campaign was wearing out. Focus group respondents were beginning to identify the new spots within seconds after they began to play on the video monitor. This concerned him because even though respondents were still saying that they liked the spots, he speculated that the recurring joke was becoming stale.

Manning shared Goodby’s concern and agreed to a new take on the campaign. Goodby’s team proposed a provocative and imaginative extension: the next series of ads should acknowledge that milk deprivation was no longer a surprise, but a chronic condition. “Town Without Milk was a whole tangent we took to try to keep the campaign fresh,” said Manning. “At my request, we tried to pursue advertising that took us to a different place. Not strategically, but executionally.”
Goodby led his creatives through a series of four spots that depicted the heartbreak of a fictional “Town without milk.” Shot in black & white, the spots were conceptually more complex than their predecessors. Research group respondents found the ads fresh and entertaining, and, especially pleasing to Goodby, they didn’t see the ads’ punchlines coming.

Yet when Manning watched the way people responded when shown the ads, he became uneasy. He found that they reacted with considerably less visceral identification than he’d observed in the initial breakthrough ads. He agreed to broadcast the first two ads in August, 1997, and because people generally liked them, he broadcasted the remaining two later in the year.

Town Without Milk

Triggering Deprivation at the Refrigerator

In 2001, Manning convinced the board that the CMPB needed a web site to promote the “got milk?” campaign on the internet. The website would feed consumers interest in the got milk? Campaign as popular culture. But, more importantly, it would serve as a vehicle to promote products with the got milk slogan. Manning was looking for any way possible that he trigger consumers’ deprivations feelings in their homes. So he introduced a line of kitchen products that get the message within feet of the refrigerator. Goodby produced ads to promote these items. The first advertised baby bottles printed with the “got milk?” logo and the second promoted “got milk?” oven mitts. Subsequently, the CMPB sold a number of kitchen items, such as baby bibs, aprons, and dish towels. Likewise, Manning sought to time his media buys to when people were most likely in a milk deprivation situation. He had televised Aaron Burr during the dinner hours, and was increasingly buying late-night television time. People ate midnight snacks, he reasoned, which were often milk-friendly brownies or cookies or even milk-dependent cereal. “We wanted to remind them, when they were within thirty feet of the refrigerator, that it was a good time to have a snack that went with milk.”

However, while he appreciated the utility of reminding consumers to drink milk when they were likely to be eating milk-friendly foods, Manning was exasperated that his product could be tied to foods whose sales may have been in decline. He became abundantly aware that it was possible to lose business if people consumed less of the other products.

“Every time cereal sales went down a point, my business went down a quarter of a point, because about a quarter of our business was in their bowls,” Manning said. “So the fact that cereal was down three percent drove me nuts because it was taking my numbers down and it had absolutely nothing to do with milk. Consumers were just choosing a granola bar over Cheerios. So we’ve tried to change that scenario.”

Priming Purchase at Point-of-Sale

“Our research indicated that the only time anybody gave milk a second thought was when they didn’t have any,” Manning said. “Outdoor played a role of purchase, not consumption. We wanted to change their behavior, to make them think about buying milk before they ran out of it.”

From the campaign’s beginning, Goodby Silverstein had made outdoor ads to place along high-traffic commuter routes. Like the television spots, the billboards and bus stop ads tied the tagline to sweet, gooey foods like chocolate cupcakes and Oreo cookies. The simple prompts were supposed to remind commuters to buy milk when they had the chance, so that later they wouldn’t find themselves deprived, like a character in the television ads.

Pursuing the same goal, Manning had “got milk?” decals placed on convenience store floors to remind customers to stop at the dairy case. In grocery store produce sections, he arranged to have “got milk?” stickers placed on fresh bananas. “People loved to slice up bananas and put it on their cereal,” he said. “I thought it would be a good idea to remind them, that as long as they were buying the bananas, to buy the milk.”

In April 2000, Goodby broadcast a television spot which played this same strategic card, but which also poked fun of the campaign’s ubiquity. Everywhere summarized a white collar man’s day-his morning preparations, commute to the office, work, his commute home-showing along the way that he passed near, under, or in front of so many “got milk?” ads that he couldn’t possibly forget to buy milk when he visited the grocer. Yet when he finally walked into his foyer that evening clutching a brown grocery bag printed with a “got milk?” logo he realized that he’d forgotten the milk.


Targeting Mexican-Americans

The 2000 U.S. census reported that nationally, peoples of Latin American origin (primarily from Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico) had edged up to around 12% of the population. But in California, Latin Americans, mostly of Mexican descent, constituted 32% of the population, up from around 25% in 1990. “We knew Hispanic families were larger. They loved milk-whole milk, in fact-and they ate at home more often,” said Manning. Manning believed that the CMPB’s overall strategy could easily transfer to Spanish-speaking targets. “Everything we knew about Hispanic families led us to believe that selling milk to them at home with food was good strategy,” Manning said.

In 2001, Goodby created a Spanish-language television ad La Llorona was based on a Mexican folk tale about a woman who drowned her children to spite her adulterous husband. Eternally sorry, she wandered the earth as a ghost in search of her lost children. “She’s kind of the boogie man in Mexico,” Goodby explained. “The interesting thing about this ad was that the Hispanics thought it was funny.” Non-Hispanics, Goodby noted, “thought it was some sort of tie-in to a ghost movie.” La Llorona also satisfied Manning’s desire to make ads that generated their own publicity. The ad received lavish media coverage because it was the first Spanish language spot to be broadcast on Anglo television.


(1.) See lead planner Jon Steele’s account in Truth, Lies, and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning (New York: John Wiley, 1998)

(2.) In 2002, 34 processing plants paid into the milk marketing program and the CMPB board comprised member representatives. Three representatives were from the state’s northern region, five were from its southern region, one was from its central valley, and one was elected at large. Every three years, California’s processors voted on a referendum to determine whether they would continue to finance the CMPB. The Board was funded by an assessment collected by the California Department of Food & Agriculture. CMPB members paid three cents for each gallon of milk they processed.

AEF would like to thank Doug Holt and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for graciously allowing to make this case study and commercials accessible to our users.

Douglas B. Holt

Copyright © 2002. All rights reserved.

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