Udder Success: The 'Got Milk?' Campaign Turns 25

Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?

Shortly after he was hired as the executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, Jeff Manning had an epiphany. It was 1993. Sales of milk were sagging both in California and nationwide. Milk industry advocates had spent much of the 1980s promising that “Milk Does a Body Good,” with an ad campaign focused on its calcium and protein benefits. Consumers knew milk was good for them. But Manning realized they just didn’t care.

Instead, the ad agency Manning hired to revamp milk’s reputation focused on the complete opposite. Rather than dwell on everything milk could do for them, they decided that television spots should highlight the consequences of going without milk. Maybe it meant having trouble chewing a dry peanut butter sandwich or cookie. Or not being able to enjoy a bowl of cereal. During a brainstorming session, ad partner Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners jotted down a tagline: “got milk.” Then he added a question mark. And for the next two decades, the Got Milk campaign, and its slogan, became as ubiquitous as Nike’s declaration that athletes “Just Do It.”

As recognizable as the ads were, sales figures told a slightly different story. While more people may have been thinking about milk than ever before, that didn’t necessarily mean they were drinking it.

 

As a result of public education and private health care, milk was a staple of kitchens everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. Early 20th-century studies of questionable veracity fed milk to rats and marveled at their shiny fur. (Rats that got vegetable oil were scrawny.) Children lined up in front of steel milk containers at schools to get their daily serving; pregnant women were told copious amounts would be good for their baby. For many people, mornings were marked by the sound of clinking bottles of milk left on doorsteps, as common as mail delivery.

In the 1970s, a shift began. Milk, while still considered a fundamental part of diets, was seeing increased competition from soft drinks. Aggressive marketing campaigns from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi positioned soda as fun to consume, offering caffeinated energy and enticing packaging that sometimes promised prizes. Milk, in contrast, was plodding along in plastic or cardboard containers. If there was any carton design at all, it was typically a simple illustration of a cow. Drinking it became almost perfunctory.

By the 1990s, milk was under siege by soft drinks, sports drinks, and Snapple, which cloaked some of its sugary offerings in an all-natural aesthetic. Milk was on the ropes: Continuing to insist it was a healthier option was no longer effective, nor was it enough.

Research by Goodby Silverstein & Partners revealed an alternative. When discussing milk consumption, consumers kept returning to the idea that running out was a source of frustration. While they may not have longed for milk as a rule, the times they could have used it—in coffee, for cookies, for cereal—and didn’t have it gave them a fresh appreciation for the beverage. When the agency put a hidden camera in their own offices to capture their staff's reaction to running out of milk, they noted it was one of disappointment. (And sometimes expletives.)

With Manning’s consent, the ad agency decided to focus on a “Milk and …” campaign, highlighting all the ways milk and food go together. That was ground down further, with Goodby and his partners making an open-ended question of a milk-deprived scenario. “Got Milk?” would present a worst-case scenario, letting consumers ruminate on the consequences of finding an empty carton. The ads would be funded California's major milk processors, with three cents from each gallon of milk sold going toward the campaign—which amounted to approximately $23 million annually.

The first televised spot for “Got Milk?” is probably still the best-known. It features a radio listener eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich while following along with an on-air trivia contest. When the host wants to know who shot Alexander Hamilton, the man knows it’s Aaron Burr. But without milk to wash down his food, it comes out as “Anon Blurrg.”

The spot, which was directed by future Transformers filmmaker Michael Bay, was an immediate sensation when it premiered in October 1993. More than 70 spots followed, many presenting a similar doomsday scenario. In a Twilight Zone premise, a man arrives in what he believes to be heaven only to find he has an endless supply of cookies but only empty cartons of milk. In another spot, a newly-married woman expresses disappointment in her choice of a spouse. He thinks it's because he bought her a fake diamond; she's upset because he emptied a carton. Time after time, a lack of milk proves uncomfortable at best or life-altering at worst.

If the milk industry had stuck with “Got Milk?” and nothing else, it probably would have remained a cultural touchstone. But in 1995, the campaign got an additional boost when the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, another pro-milk lobbying group, licensed the slogan to use with their own growing milk mustache print ad campaign spearheaded by the Bozell Worldwide ad agency. Celebrities like Harrison Ford, Kermit the Frog, and dozens of others appeared with a strip of milk across their upper lip. Manning also agreed to license the tagline to third parties like Nabisco—which printed it on their Oreos—and Mattel, which issued a milk-mustached Barbie. Cookie Monster endorsed the campaign. At one point, 90 percent of consumers in California were familiar with the “Got Milk?” effort, an astounding level of awareness.

Being amused by the spots was one thing. But was anyone actually drinking more milk because of them?

 

Milk lobbyists in California pointed out that the ads arrested the decline of milk consumption that had plagued the industry for decades. In 1994, for example, 755 million gallons were sold in the state, up from 740 million gallons in 1993. Manning also cited figures that indicated "Got Milk?" helped halt a slide that could have cost the industry $255 million annually in California alone—a drop-off that was stopped by that $23 million in ad spending.

But overall, it was tough for milk to regain some of the lost loyalty it had enjoyed in the 1950s. Between 1970 and 2011, average consumption went from 0.96 cups daily to 0.59 cups. With so many beverage options, consumers were often pushing the milk carton aside and reaching for Gatorade or soda instead. Changes in food habits didn’t help, either. Fewer people were eating cereal for breakfast, instead looking for yogurt or other low-calorie options.

“Got Milk?” was informally retired in 2014, replaced by a “Milk Life” campaign that once again brought nutrition back to the forefront.

Today, the average American drinks roughly 18 gallons of milk per year. (Unless, of course, they’re lactose-intolerant.) In 1970, it was 30 gallons. But there is hope: Plant-based milk made from almonds and other less-conventional sources are growing in the marketplace. “Got Coconut Milk?” may not be as catchy, but it might soon be more relevant than the alternative.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER