Milking the Internet

On her two official Web sites, Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old star of the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana and daughter of country-music singer Billy Ray Cyrus, is identified as “America’s teenage sweetheart.”

The sites (mileycyrus.com and mileyworld.com) are devoted to her impressive resume of show-business accomplishments, and are ripe with cross-promotional and merchandising links. To say they’re popular is an understatement: In April alone, mileyworld.com, for instance, had 284,000 unique visitors, according to Nielsen Online.

The teen performer’s popularity is catnip to advertisers. So it’s no surprise that both of her sites link users to a microsite (bodybymilk.com), where her strong Internet presence can help a long-running print campaign, “Milk mustache” from the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, adopt to the media favored by one of its most significant target groups: teenagers.

“This past year is the first time we’ve significantly used online as an advertising vehicle,” says Sal Taibi, president of Lowe Worldwide, which inherited the campaign from Bozell when it acquired that agency in 1995. “As we explored different ideas and content to reach teens, it became evident that the celebrity asset we had was very powerful.”

As a result, MySpace was used to help launch the latest “Milk mustache” ads (including the one featuring Cyrus, launched last month, and one with Batman — a tie-in with the upcoming Dark Knight — released two weeks ago). Also, behind-the-scenes videos, such as one documenting Cyrus’ “Milk mustache” photo session with Annie Leibovitz, are being posted on YouTube. And in a first, all PR for Cyrus’ ad took place exclusively on the Web via her two sites and bodybymilk, the board’s teen site, where users are offered things such as downloadable Cyrus wallpapers and skins for mobile devices, and a Cyrus wake-up call, also for cell phones.

Banner ads and a call to action on the print ads get people to bodybymilk.com.

“We don’t worry a lot about pretesting the celebs or the ads because we know from history that when we run them they get seen,” says Taibi. “Where we do think about the celebrity appeal is with the online stuff, where so much of it is voluntary or viral.”

Kurt Graetzer, the board’s CEO, adds: “We’re up to about 270 celebrities in the 13 years this has been running and the board has rarely commented on the selection process. … Except for the sports stars, I don’t know if the national milk processors are familiar with celebrities who appeal to teens. I’ll tell you — nobody on my board knows who Rihanna is.”

Perhaps it was this unfamiliarity that caused the campaign to take its time in bringing — and then utilizing — its assets online. The digital strategy was actually launched in 1994 with the low-key whymilk.com; it was refreshed in ’06, this time as the destination site for milk’s other major target audience, moms. (Whymilk.com now reaches approximately 62,000 U.S. monthly uniques — a very modest figure — per Quantcast.) In 2006, Lowe launched bodybymilk, which includes things such as contests and downloadable widgets, and reaches approximately 19,000 U.S. monthly uniques, according to Quantcast.

In the beginning

The “Milk mustache” campaign began with a knotty problem unique to a commodity with no national brand. The original national campaign was developed by Bozell in 1993, but could not be implemented until the 450 independent processors approved the ad spend. This required an act of Congress and a government-supervised formal bidding process, which Bozell finally won — two years later — on the strength of “Milk mustache” and its all-print strategy. (In the meantime, the California Milk Advisory Board began its own ad campaign in 1994 through Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, “Got Milk?” where the “Got milk?” tagline for “Milk mustache” originated.)

In 1995, the board agreed to spend $100 million on the campaign. “It was a lot of money in 1995,” says Graetzer, “but it still didn’t come close to what Coke and Pepsi and orange juice and iced tea and bottled water were spending. But they were spending it all on television. Our rationale was, ‘Let’s get a campaign that’s going to make a difference, but then let’s own a medium because that’s the only way we’ll get noticed.'”

Today, the board spends over $200 million a year, relatively small potatoes in a crowded beverage category that takes in all soft drinks and rakes in over $200 billion in total sales.

When it was first launched, the idea was “to surprise people” and show that milk was contemporary with Coke and Pepsi, says Taibi.

To do so, adds Graetzer, they relied on “the consuming public’s voracious appetite for celebrities, and the melding of celebrities with a good, healthy message.” But as the campaign evolved, it became “less and less about surprising people and more focused on imparting the impression that milk contributes to a successful performance.”

Which made sense, as research showed that most of the growth in the category was coming from so-called functional beverages such as green tea, vitaminwater, fruit juice drinks — products that claim to do something for you.

But the subtle switch required a new kind of star — one who is as healthy-looking as she or he is famous. Consequently, stick figures such as Kate Moss have given way to oomphier (milk-fed?) exemplars, including Marg Helgenberger, Sara Ramirez and the soon-to-be 16-year-old, soon-to-be-oomphy Cyrus.

Healthy looking, or not, the celebs’ photos are all imbued with an allure that has little to do with drinking what’s good for you. In fact, aside from some disagreement about the scientific evidence used to promote milk’s salubrious effect on health and fitness, the only area of controversy raised by the campaign remains subtextual — except to parodists and social scientists. (Case in point: the Monica Lewinsky “Milk Mustache” print parody that came out after her misadventures with President Clinton became public.)

The power of the “Milk mustache” work “is that it continues to play on a number of cultural meanings simultaneously,” says Stuart Ewen, professor of history and sociology at the City University of New York graduate center. “First, every kid has had a milk mustache — a tactile oral experience — so the ads connect to primal childhood memories. … Second, it offers an unusually pristine view of celebrity culture, mixing a wide range of familiar faces with their inner child. In a society where celebrity is often associated with sordid behavior, and where even good celebrities tend to be disgraced … such homespun visions of innocence invert routine media-operating procedures.”

There are approximately 20 celebrities used annually for the “Milk mustache” ads, and they have a shelf life not too much greater than milk itself, which is a built-in protection for the product and advertiser should anyone misbehave and undermine the association. (Few remember that the original “Milk mustache” girl was Naomi Campbell, long before her anger-management-avoidant period.)

Smiling Miley, already caught up in a controversy surrounding her sexy Vanity Fair photo shoot, also by Leibovitz, is seen in the milk ad relaxing in her backstage dressing room, wearing tight jeans, mid-calf boots and a form-fitting undershirt over a still-forming figure, with the now-unmistakable, telltale mustache planted over her pursed lips. (If the photograph isn’t doing enough to suggest a sexual subtext, on the accompanying video of the photo shoot, she does something with her lips for the camera that is practically subversive.) America’s teenage sweetheart is a bombshell bursting with bright-eyed come-hitherness and her milk mustache photo seems to catch her in the act of ripening.

Got results?

While the essential thrust of “Milk mustache” hasn’t been radically altered in 13 years, it’s also fact that milk hasn’t changed much. “There have not been many new products, not much flavor proliferation,” says Graetzer. “And in terms of pricing, we continue to be at an enormous disadvantage in that our prices have gone up faster than either soft drinks and all grocery-store products. In terms of distribution, our profile hasn’t changed much, either.”

But in terms of the processors’ bang for the advertising buck, Graetzer says that for every dollar spent over the past few years, the processors have been able to claim a return of over $9 in retail sales. “Even last year, when retail prices for milk spiked,” says Graetzer, “the processor got back $6.60 in retail sales for every dollar spent — much better than most consumer packaged-goods products.” Graetzer also claims that, in terms of sales, which he says were in free fall in 1995, “falling per-capita consumption of milk has slowed down significantly since the campaign began.”

“If there ever was an indication that [‘Milk mustache’] wasn’t working, we’d move off it tomorrow,” Taibi adds. “But everything we measure shows how effective it is. When you think about this being a generic category, what we’ve really done over 13 years is create a brand equity for a commodity.”