HISTORY’s Moment in Media: Launching the Got Milk? Campaign

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Got milk?

It’s a simple question -- and one of the most recognizable marketing taglines of all time. It debuted in October 1993, 30 years ago this month, with a TV spot poking fun at a history buff who can’t quite name Aaron Burr as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton (well before the revolutionary pair’s Broadway fame) and directed by none other than Michael Bay (well before his action blockbuster fame).

The ad kicked off what would turn out to be a 21-year campaign that included both TV spots and, perhaps even more iconic, the milk mustache print ads and posters shot by Annie Leibovitz. And it all started because the legendary San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners couldn’t quite figure out how to pitch a new concept for what seemed like the most boring product imaginable.

It was a Goodby partner named Jon Steel who held a focus group to come up with ideas to inform a pitch to the California Milk Processor Board, which was looking for new ways to drive sales. Milk had long been sold as a healthy, almost obligatory product.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was simply what kids drank. In the 1980s, its tagline was “Milk does a body good.” But starting in the ‘70s, soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi started driving hard for the youth market. By the ‘90s, there was competition from sports drinks like Gatorade and even new products like Snapple that wrapped their sugary products in a milk-rivaling veneer of healthfulness. A new chief of the California milk group, Jeff Manning, realized the we are good-for-you pitch wasn’t working and was looking for a new idea. Goodby’s Steel was trying to figure out what that could be.

In preparation for the focus group, he asked the participants not to drink any milk for a week before the study. And when they finally met with him, they all talked about how much they missed it. One man told the story of getting up one morning, pouring a bowl of cereal, slicing some banana on top, and then remembering he couldn’t have milk and wondering if he should just lie about it. The rest of the group told similar stories, and Steel realized he was onto something. When the agency held a meeting to talk about it, Goodby suggested calling it “Got Milk,” with a question mark. A tagline was born -- and the seeds of what became known as a deprivation marketing campaign, selling the product by highlighting its absence.

That first spot brings us to the home-slash-shrine-slash-museum of an Alexander Hamilton enthusiast who is listening to the radio and making himself a big peanut butter sandwich. He takes a bite just as the DJ announces the lucky-caller question of the day: Who shot Hamilton? The man’s phone rings, and of course he knows the answer: Aaron Burr. But with his mouth full of peanut butter, the words are unrecognizable. He reaches for his nearby milk carton, but there are only drops left. He loses out on $10,000. Got milk?

Other ads were equally memorable and goofy. In one, a Scrooge-like figure is hit by a truck and wakes up in an afterlife of enormous chocolate chip cookies - and empty milk cartons. In another, an old-timey clairvoyant kid won’t eat birthday cake because he can foresee there will be no milk.

But the real success came when the California board got Goodby to start licensing their tagline. In 1995, the national milk marketing group, called the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, launched the milk-mustache campaign. Their first print ad featured Naomi Campbell and the tagline “Milk, What a surprise!” -- which was soon replaced with “Got milk?” Eventually, 180 celebrities appeared in the ads, from Kermit the Frog to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

And Got Milk? became a ‘90s icon. The California Milk Board’s Manning convinced Nabisco to make a Got Milk? Oreo. There were Got Milk? Girl Scout cookies. Mattel made a Got Milk? Barbie. Even Cookie Monster joined in. Even the spoofs were legion.

There was only one problem. Sales data showed that Got Milk? didn’t actually do enough to help sell milk. In 2014, MilkPEP retired the campaign, after per capita consumption of fluid milk and cream fell by 25 percent from 1975 to 2012.

In 2020, they brought it back, with a social-first campaign that included influencers and sports stars. The impetus, the milk people said, was a pandemic-era boost in milk consumption.

But, still, sales of traditional milk continue to decline. Gen Z is turning to milk alternatives, like plant-based products, and dairy milk sales have now reached all-time lows. Today’s MilkPEP campaigns are pushing back, with efforts like Gonna Need Milk, #TeamMilk and “Only real milk is real.” But even the most recent of those ads tend to end with a certain two words.

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