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Spilled Milk

  • July 15, 2002, 12:00 AM EDT
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I am about to become an advertising catchphrase. Again. The California Milk Pro cessor Board is resurrecting its infamous "Aaron Burr" TV spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. You know, the one from a decade ago with the guy who is asked a question in a trivia contest but, with a mouthful of peanut butter and no milk, manages only a tortured, unintelligible answer: "Awooon Buuuhh!" (That spelling, by the way, comes from the press release announcing the spot's return. What have we come to?)

As advertising, it's effective. As a way of life, it's annoying. Trust me on this one.

It was marginally funny at first. I'd introduce myself to someone and wait for a guttural mangling of my name in return. Then I'd laugh politely, pretending it was the first time I'd heard the joke, and try to move on. But it wouldn't go away. And very quickly it got old.

Initially the jokesters were Californians, who were the first ones to see the ad. But as it rolled out across the country, everyone began to chime in. Parties thick with advertising professionals were particu larly trying.

I'd tell myself it was better than being named Michael Jordan, Dick Tracy or Madonna, seeing as I don't have a jump shot, a two-way radio wristwatch or, for lack of a better term, moxie.

Before the ad came along, the only people who blinked when hearing my name were those with a knack for remembering obscure bits of American history. I'd give them appropriate credit and extra points if they told me a Burr fact I didn't know. (That happened often enough. I've made no effort to become an Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton aficionado like the guy in the ad.)

But "Got milk?" brought the Federalist to the masses. It was in escapable. To this day my mother-in-law—a Californian and the first to lob the "Awooon Buuuhh" reference my way—still uses it as a term of "endearment."

Of course, it's a mark of good advertising if a phrase like this manages to enter the public consciousness. People repeat it to themselves, co-workers, friends, family—often with a chuckle, and that goodwill extends to the product. (DDB has even given the phenomenon a trademarked name, TalkValue.) But I've had to live with the consequences. And unlike most catchphrases, there's just no appropriate response when it's your name.

In recent years, the furor died down a bit. The spot ran its course. Other phrases took their rightful turn on the pop-culture roller coaster. I was home free. But now it's back. And I'm betting it will reclaim the huge popularity it enjoyed when it debuted in 1993.

So once again I will cringe when I introduce myself. People will offer me milk I don't want. They'll joke about how I should cut back on the peanut-butter sandwiches. They'll scream my name and laugh hysterically. Advertising, for the foreseeable future, will cease to become a pleasurable part of my existence.

I fear the phone. It's ringing right now, and as I answer it, I dread the voice on the other end. The one that will inevitably say, "Awooon Buuuhh! ... Whassup?!"