Got Milk? was born of a relationship between the California Milk Processor Board and Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a San Francisco–based ad agency. Its life mission was to raise awareness—and sales—of cow’s milk. The campaign’s first television commercial aired on Oct. 29, 1993. Directed by Michael Bay—the future Transformers auteur—the ad depicted a man unable to claim the $10,000 prize offered by a radio trivia contest, having been rendered mute by a sticky peanut butter sandwich. The soon-to-be-historic tag line ran over the man’s muffled sobs.
Though many among the Goodby Silverstein staff found the slogan “lazy” and “grammatically incorrect,” the ad was a hit with critics, and shone on the awards circuit. Got Milk? proved so popular that in 1994 it was adopted for a national campaign, with a long-running series of print ads cementing its status. Countless celebrities, athletes, models and fictional characters sported “milk moustaches” over the years, from Lauren Bacall to Lauren Conrad, Spider-Man to Austin Powers, and the Olsen twins to Spike Lee. By 1995, polls showed the campaign had an astounding 91% awareness level in the U.S.
For a product as innocuous as milk, the campaign spawned an impressive number of tributes and spoofs, including “Got Jesus?” and “Got Beer?” Rather than serve cease-and-desist notices to those who playfully mocked the campaign, the California milk board embraced its popularity, releasing a poster featuring its favourite spoofs in 2005. (The board’s good nature only extended so far—spoofs such as PETA’s “Got Pus? Milk Does” were noticeably absent.) It even licensed the slogan on occasion, leading to a Got Milk? Barbie and a Hot Wheels Got Milk? delivery truck.
But the Got Milk? campaign was never especially successful at what it set out to do: sell milk. North American milk intake decreased nearly 40% between 1970 and 2011. Any number of factors can be cited for milk’s decline: the ever-increasing variety of drinks available to a thirsty public, a decrease in the sale of dry cereal, the increasing popularity of soy, and a dairy backlash among those (like PETA) who feel dairy farmers are biased in their belief of milk’s health benefits. For milk producers, it was a frustrating lesson: buzz doesn’t matter if an advertisement doesn’t drive sales.
In February, the Milk Processor Education Program announced it would discontinue its national Got Milk? campaign and replace it with Milk Life, a new set of ads that tout milk’s protein count, featuring regular people doing active things.
Though Got Milk? ads will no longer be seen in the pages of glossy national magazines, the campaign is survived by its parent. The California Milk Processor Board says the campaign did increase milk consumption within California, so it will continue to ask “Got Milk?” for the foreseeable future.