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U.S. "Got Milk" Ads Have History of False Claims

U.S. "Got Milk" Ads Have History of False Claims

By Martha Rosenberg
April 3, 2012

Selling milk looks easy and even fun when you see the celebrity "milk mustache" ads in the United States. "Got Milk?" ads may be the most recognizable and spoofed of all ad campaigns but they are probably also the least successful: milk sales have actually fallen every year since the ads began, admit the agencies charged with selling milk. The National Dairy Promotion and Research Program and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program admit "consumption has been declining for decades in the United States at about 1.0 percent per year," in their yearly reports to Congress but plead that their marketing has "helped mitigate at least some of this decline." Key words "help," "at least," and "some."

Why the milk drinking nosedive? First, many U.S. groups from ethnic minorities, the lactose intolerant and allergic to dieters, the health conscious and vegans simply do not drink much, or any, milk. Kids themselves often dislike milk--probably why they invented chocolate milk--and it is often the last choice among teens and tweens--on whom much milk marketing is focused. Healthcare professionals, unless subsidized by the dairy industry, seldom recommend milk because of its cholesterol, fat, calories, allergens and impurities and its possible links to rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) since milk made with the cow milk enhancer has never been labeled. Benjamin Spock, MD, the famous baby boom–era pediatrician, recommended no milk for children after age two to reduce their risks of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and diet-related cancers.

Milk marketers admit that the public's "preference" for milk may be changing, but also blame calcium-fortied juices and vitamin-enhanced beverages that "undermine" milk’s healthy image and "limited availability" of milk in eating establishments and even milk's price. You can't find milk anywhere--and when you do, you can't afford it! The agencies also note that national milk sales are falling as the "proportion of African Americans in the population increases"--a group not known to be big milk drinkers--and because the proportion of children under six has not grown much.

Milk marketers have tried everything to reverse falling sales. During the 1980's when the slogan was "Milk: It Does a Body Good," they began marketing milk for strong bones and to prevent osteoporosis. "One in ve victims of osteoporosis is male," said milk ads featuring model Tyra Banks, as the mustache campaign debuted. "Don’t worry. Calcium can help prevent it." Another early mustache ad with musician Marc Anthony read, "Shake it, don’t break it. Want strong bones? Drinking enough lowfat milk now can help prevent osteoporosis later."

But there were both marketing and scientific problems with the campaign. Teens and tweens don't worry much about old people diseases whether osteoporosis or skin damage from sun expose because who's gonna get old? And African Americans, Latinos and men, groups targeted in the strong bone campaign, are the least at risk for osteoporosis say doctors. Oops.

Health professionals also disputed the bone claims themselves. A 2001 USDA expert panel report said that calcium intake by itself, as milk offers, does not prevent osteoporosis because exercise and nutrients other than calcium are part of the bone health picture. Panelists also said whole milk could increase the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease and ads should include such warnings.

And other experts like T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., author of The China Study and heart expert Dean Ornish, M.D, of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, agreed that osteoporosis and fractures are not caused by what marketers were presenting as "milk deficiencies." In fact the Western diet itself, which often has too much protein and acid, is blamed by some researchers and nutritionists for osteoporosis and fractures. The popular proton pump inhibitors like Nexium, Prevacid and Prilosec, which people take for acid reflux, are also blamed for fractures.

Undaunted, in 2002, milk marketers told Congress they were marketing the scientific benefits of milk for osteoporosis, breast cancer and hypertension and especially focusing on African Americans. "The Fluid Milk Board continues to spotlight the high incidence of high blood pressure among African Americans and to promote milk and milk products as a dietary solution as part of the DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] diet," says the report to Congress. "The program also addresses misconceptions about lactose intolerance and shows why it should not be a barrier to including milk in the diet. The Board launched a new lactose intolerance initiative that focuses on educating African Americans on the importance of incorporating milk into their diet. The programs provided educational material on osteoporosis and lactose intolerance."

Milk marketers also seemed to take a cue from the cartoon character Joe Camel, used by R. J. Reynolds to market Camel cigarettes, and made milk more fun. Milk containers were redesigned into new hand-friendly decanters, called the Chug and a spoof-y musical group was rolled out on YouTube and social-networking sites called White Gold and the Calcium Twins.

The "Got Milk?" site also ran an animated cartoon of a farm which depicted happy cows, chickens, ducks, and pigs (and a horse working out on a treadmill), while milk cartons moved by on a conveyor belt. A helium balloon pops up continually, saying, "Tell Your Friends."

"Do you think drinking calcium fortified beverages like soy drinks and orange juice will meet your bones’ requirements?" asks the site. "Not really, says research that concluded 75 percent of calcium added to popular beverages gets left at the bottom of the carton." But then, a disclaimer pops up and confesses that milk's actual benefits for "bones, PMS, sleep, teeth, hair, muscles [and] nails" have been "purposefully exaggerated so as not to bore you." What?

And that's the least of the student marketing. Posters of mustache-wearing actors, sports figures, musicians, and models are sent to sixty thousand U.S. elementary schools and forty-five thousand middle and high schools and ads appear in Sports Illustrated for Kids, Spin, Electronic Gaming, CosmoGirl, Blender, Seventeen and elsewhere.

Students have been told if they visit milk websites they can win an iPod, a Fender guitar, clothes from Adidas and Baby Phat and their schools could qualify for sports gear, classroom supplies, and musical instruments. There was also peer-to-peer, in-class selling at three California school where students got a chance to create their own "Got Milk?" campaigns and qualify for an all-expense-paid trip to San Francisco to present their ideas to milk officials for future milk marketing campaigns.

The cost of an ad campaign guaranteed to sell milk to teens because it was created by teens? Priceless.

Coming Part II--Milk for PMS and Weight Loss--More Failed Marketing


Martha Rosenberg's first book, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health, has just been released by Prometheus Books.

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