Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Bowing To The Cows

Lately, any survey of the news includes a Senate debate on how to handle illegal immigrants (aka aliens) in the United States, while a recent Wall Street Journal report about rioting youths seeking lifetime employment in France showed one demonstrator bearing a placard that read, “Death to Cows.” Given its actual intersection with strange but true events, this new “Alien Cow Abduction” campaign for the California Milk Processor Board is at first mighty hard to process.

For starters, wild postings lead the captivated to two disparate Web sites, where the story of cows disappearing from Earth is told from two sides. At CowAbduction.com, you can watch a cow hurtle into space, count how many are missing and listen to testimony from actual dairy farmers in mourning. “You feel like you’re violated. That’s how I feel,” says one. “At a loss—what would you think?” adds another.

The second Web site, PlanetInNeed.com, brings us to a totally milk-deprived place called “Brittleactica,” a planet where, needless to say, no good milk pun goes unturned, and where the demand for the “white serum wonder tonic” is so great that most beings bear either multiple splints, casts or a neck brace, thus necessitating the expedition to Earth for the blessed nectar. Five TV spots can be accessed on the site and will run in California throughout the year (and possibly nationally later on).

An incredibly detailed and clever nod to both the paranormal crop-circle myths and sci-fi-obsessed Trekkie-types, the whole thing is so seamless and complex that it takes a few viewings to decode. On the face of it, calling a saga about aliens abducting cows “brilliant” might sound dumb, but the execution is so visually clever and smartly worded that it actually had some sci-fi followers in Internet chat rooms wondering whether the cow abduction part was real.

The campaign is also certain to attract a wider following: I myself have never had any interest in crop circles or outer-planetary beings, but when I saw the alien with the comb-over—the ruler of “Papua Hairthinny” in one of the TV spots—seeking the wonder elixir to strengthen the poignantly placed clumps on his pate, I knew this was the thriller for me. (Other nations on the planet, each with its own visually appropriate ruler, include “Cavitopia,” “Insomniastan” and “PMStonia.”)

In that way, the campaign is ridiculously aggressive in selling milk’s benefits—it’s just done in such an original, entertaining manner that it seems less heavy-handed and more instructive. The creators reach into uncharted territory (yes, they “boldly go where no man has gone before”) in developing the innovative look of the aliens: Futuristic but also florid, these guys suggest 14th-century Renaissance noblemen with modern-day medical accessories. (The ruler of Cavitopia sports a Beetle Juice-meets-Uncle Fester look, especially around his sickening little rat teeth.) The dialogue and acting are first-rate; the insights into the awkwardness of adopting earthling culture and lingo are worthy of Third Rock From the Sun.

And it all comes together in the TV spots. The idea cleverly co-opts the mythology of Star Trek, in which humanity has overcome traditional frailties and vices and has united in peace and understanding while exploring new civilizations in other galaxies. Except now all the frailties exist on Brittleactica, a place of brittle bones and incredible bureaucracy (each leader keeps turning to the next). The biggest joke is that the aliens have no respect for humans (they’re just “two-legged workers”) but bow before the cow as ruler.

The two scientists/space operatives sent to Earth on the elixir mission have their own hilarious look, too: think go-go-booted, unitarded Euro rock stars of the ’60s. They arrive outside a dairy barn and, from the sign on the door, immediately decide that the deity lives within. From then on, they call the cow Da-iry (pronounced “dah-eerie”). Apparently, other galaxies are also filled with geeks and suck-ups—one of these guys is a Barney Fife-type in a Bealtles wig and rayon jumpsuit who gets so excited upon finding the cow that he rumbles, “If we bring back the wonder tonic, we will receive medals so great that we will need a team of Septicons to transport them!”

After many unsuccessful attempts to extract the elixir—even though they try to flatter the cow with “I love what you’ve done with the place”—the two have to schlep the bovine back to their own planet. During transport (the flying saucer is so white and minimalistic that it must rely on incredible nano-technology), the lackey guy says to the cow, “Da-iry, would you care to see how our navigation system works?” His boss responds, “Idiot! Do not bore the ruler with our antique aircraft!”

The spots are laugh-out-loud funny, and they’re so intricately layered and detailed that they get better with every subsequent viewing. Each ends with the long-used tag, “Got milk?”

It’s amazing that after 12 years and the creation of so much deprivation-related material, a campaign can still be this fresh and delightful. To paraphrase an earlier tagline, “Alien cow abduction—it does a body of work good.”