The Marketing Lesson from Got Milk?’s Demise

The ubiquitous milk-moustache ad campaign was a popular and critical hit, but it failed to actually sell more milk. That’s why it’s gone

Written by Conan Tobias

Got Milk? was born of a relationship between the California Milk Processor Board and Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a San Francisco–based ad agency. The campaign’s life mission was to raise awareness—and sales—of cow’s milk. Got Milk?’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.

Although 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 have sported “milk moustaches” over the years, from Lauren Bacall to Lauren Conrad, Spider-Man to Austin Powers, the Olsen twins to Spike Lee. By 1995, polls showed the campaign had an astounding 91% awareness level in the U.S.

Gallery: The Best Got Milk? Ads From the Past 20 Years

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 campaign’s popularity, releasing a poster featuring its favourite spoofs in 2005. (The board’s good nature extended only so far—spoofs such as PETA’s “Got Pus? Milk Does” were noticeably absent.) The milk board 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 by almost 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, the decrease in the sale of dry cereal, the increasing popularity of soy and the 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.

Read: How to Build a Global Advertising Campaign

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.

Although Got Milk? ads no longer will be seen in the pages of glossy national magazines, the campaign is survived by its parent. The California Milk Processor Board says the Got Milk? campaign did increase milk consumption within California, so it will continue to ask “Got Milk?” there for the foreseeable future.

Read: The Cheapskate’s Guide to Advertising

Why do you think the Got Milk? campaign was such a popular hit? Do you think ditching the campaign was the right idea? Share your thoughts below.

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