Got longevity?

As an ad guy and a lover of all things to do with pop culture, I had to take a moment to salute a retiring stalwart of the ad game. After more than 20 years of service to North America, the “got milk?” campaign has officially put its stylized, lowercase, sans serif tag line out to pasture.

The “got milk?” campaign was launched in October of 1993. It was originally commissioned by the California Milk Processor Board and the first spots only aired in California. It didn’t go nationwide until 1995 when it was licensed to the National Milk Processor Education Panel. They wanted it primarily for their series of celebrity posters and print ads that featured the “milk moustache” photos.

The most influential commodity campaign in history and one of the most parodied advertising tag lines ever written almost didn’t make it off the drawing board. According to the folks at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the agency that created the monster, they considered the tag line lazy, not to mention grammatically incorrect. They really shouldn’t have worried. The Blue Collar Comedy tour has proven that Americans LOVE lazy and grammatically incorrect. They almost killed it. If it hadn’t been for the strong scripts and the on-going campaign possibilities, the whole thing would never have been shown to the client.

Since the positioning statement seemed weak, the agency wanted the first TV spot to be strong. What they came up with was the equivalent of bringing a hand grenade to a fist fight. To begin with, they hired up and coming director Michael Bay to helm the project. Bay was well known at the time for his MTV music videos and commercial work he’d done for Coors and Nike. He was still two years away from his “Bad Boys” movie breakthrough. The script was a thing of beauty. Telling any story in thirty or sixty seconds is a challenge. The scripted spot was conceived as an incredible, minute long opus. In Bay’s hands it became a fully realized bit of amazing commercial theater. 

The whole campaign positioned milk as a problem solver. The first spot delivered the theme as a hilarious joke. I’d bet anything you’ve seen it. The spot opens with a man, played by Sean Whalen, putting the finishing touches on an open-faced peanut butter sandwich while he is listening to the radio.  Intercuts of second long shots of paintings, books and memorabilia reveal that the man is an obsessed fan of the Alexander Hamilton/Aaron Burr duel. The pistols and even a glass domed case containing “the bullet” can be seen. 

Our duel aficionado folds over the bread and takes a big bite of his sandwich just as the radio host announces it’s time to make a random call. If the person called can answer today’s trivia question they will win $10,000. Of course, our sandwich eater’s phone rings. The question: “who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?” Without a moment’s hesitation our hero says “errum err” through the peanut butter. He tries again, frustrated. The host can’t understand. Milk, he needs milk! He grabs the carton to refill his glass and…nothing. A mere splash. Not nearly enough to cut through his mouthful of peanut butter. In a panic he again shouts “Am Buh!”…and again, to no avail. The radio host offers condolences and hangs up. Peanut butter muffled sobbing can be heard. Fade to black.

Fade up on those two words, reversed over the black. The whole thing was understated, entirely lowercase, a simple narrow san serif font accompanied by an offhanded, barely uttered voiceover from San Francisco based voice actor Denny Delk.

It was truly brilliant. Bay earned a Grand Prix Clio for Commercial of the Year with the production in 1994. It was also awarded a Silver Lion at Cannes. In 2002 a USA Today poll named the ad one of the ten best television commercials ever produced in any language…ever.

A cultural icon was born. Follow-up commercials involved dry or sticky foods, cookies…anything that would be good with a nice cold glass of milk. Milk was needed to save the day or solve the problem but the hapless hero would always be out of the white stuff. Most were very well received and the campaign had legs, but nothing would ever match the impact of the “Burr” commercial .

The “got milk?” campaign has been licensed to dairy boards and liquid milk producers throughout the United States since 1995. In an advertising environment where having a 25 or 30% awareness of a campaign is outstanding, the “got milk?” campaign has tested at more than 90% awareness in the U.S. The campaign has been licensed for retail appearing on consumer goods as diverse as Barbie Dolls, Hot Wheels cars and kitchen utensils.

And, of course, there are the parodies. It is generally agreed that “got milk?” is the most parodied/ripped off/copied ad campaign in history. In 2005 the California Milk Processor Board compiled a list of its 100 favorite parodies on a poster they called “got ripped off?” The parodies are so pervasive none of the licensing agencies even pursues legal action…with one exception. In 2002, PETA launched a campaign attacking the Dairy Industry with a parody print ad headlined “got pus?” The lawyers swung into action against that one like heroes from a Michael Bay film. Just the threat of a lawsuit shut it down.

You’d think a campaign this monumental and influential would be boasting huge results for their client. Not so much. Although the California Milk Processor Board did show an increase in milk sales during the early years of the campaign, nationwide sales increases were not significant. Some analysts point to the fact that sales have not slipped during the run of the campaign even in the face of two major market crashes, a significant recession and a turn towards alternatives in the category such as soy and almond milk.

The campaign was officially retired on February 24th of 2014. October would be 21 years since we first “got milk?” What is replacing the campaign? I have no idea…but I pity the creative team that has to come up with something.  

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