Dairy’s Queen

In the 1980s, Jeff Manning was an account executive at McCann-Erickson in San Francisco, where he noticed the work of a young copywriter at the shop, Jeff Goodby. In 1993, running the review for the California Milk Processor Board, Manning culled the list to San Francisco shops Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Foote, Cone & Belding, Hal Riney & Partners and Goldberg Moser O’Neill. Goodby took the business with an insight from account planning director Jon Steel that defined the campaign: The only time people get emotional about milk is when they run out of it.

To sum up the concept, Goodby came up with “Got milk?” as the title for a presentation board during the pitch. The phrase stuck—so much so that Goodby now says, “I have to accept that the line isn’t mine anymore.”

The tagline that’s become embedded in the vernacular gets tweaked to “Got bones?” in Goodby’s latest promotion, an offbeat contest that asks consumers to send in original X-rays of any body part for possible use in a milk ad this fall. The campaign has recently evolved from its focus on the milk-deprived to an emphasis on milk’s high-calcium benefits, with one ad showing unlabeled X-rays—from the medical files of agency workers—alongside the line, “Strength comes from within.”

While Manning says consumer reaction to the health-oriented initiative has been mixed, it’s an indication that the simple, clear strategy is still hatching unexpected ideas for the 10-year-old campaign. (Last year, the board went so far as to pitch 20 California communities on the notion of changing their town’s name to the campaign tagline in exchange for a contribution to local schools and a “Got milk?” museum. Only tiny Biggs responded, but it ultimately said no.)

For the agency, the modest $25 million business—which includes TV, radio, outdoor and in-store—has become a signature account. The milk board saw an end to what had been a 2-3 percent annual decline in California milk sales, and it has come to depend on consumers’ affection for the “Got milk?” stories—told in 60 spots to date—to drive milk consumption.

After Goodby won the business, he asked the creative department to come up with stories of people who desperately need milk. As an example, he pointed to Steven Spielberg’s early thriller Duel, in which an evil semi truck chases down a man in a car. “Imagine that truck was pursuing another semi, cutting it off and ramming it from behind,” he told the team. “When the camera pulled back, you saw it was a cookie truck chasing a milk truck and the driver of the cookie truck had his mouth full of cookies and nothing to drink.”

That idea never made it into production, but it helped spark the mixture of surprise, humor and perversity that has permeated the campaign. One of the first commercials was instant classic “Aaron Burr,” in which a reclusive Burr buff can’t win a radio trivia contest because his mouth is full of peanut butter and he’s out of milk. It fell to copywriter Chuck McBride, who worked on the ad with copywriter Scott Burns and associate creative director Erich Joiner, to explain the idea to Manning. “Jeff was leaning back in his chair with a look on his face like, ‘You guys are really going for it,’ ” says McBride, now North America creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day. “It was dawning on him that ‘Got milk?’ meant we were going to screw people in the ads. We were going to make people miserable because they didn’t have milk.” To heighten the surprise element, the agency hired director Michael Bay, known for his high-end cinematic style.

During the Burr production, McBride remembers public relations reps for the milk board “freaking out” when antique muskets were fired in a flashback scene: ” ‘You can’t have guns in a milk ad,’ they kept saying.” The spot went on to win a Grand Clio—followed by another Clio and several Obies, national Addys and One Show pencils for subsequent “Got milk?” ads—and proved so popular, the client ran it again last year. And Bay’s unusual angles, stark sets and exaggerated attention to detail quickly became the look of the campaign.

Goodby, agency co-founder and co-creative director, has directed nine “Got milk?” spots over the years and still reviews every script. He worked with copywriter Colin Nissan and art director Sean Farrell on the current “Birthday” commercial, in which a psychic boy warns partygoers not to eat the birthday cake because there is no milk. “The account may be small, but it is satisfying,” he says. “It’s remarkably simple. We’ve had one client since the beginning. He understands what we are trying to do and shares our desire to keeping topping ourselves.”

Not that there haven’t been shouting matches over the years. Manning, a 25-year ad veteran, readily admits he likes to oversee every step in the process, from initial research to the props used. Agency copywriters and art directors recount numerous debates with Manning over minor issues, such as whether the shape of a salt shaker was too suggestive in a spot about a dad looking to steal milk from his baby. “Jeff Manning could be a real pain,” says McBride, who worked on several spots in the mid-’90s. “But you have to give him credit: He was one guy who would take a risk.”

As Manning sees it, he treats creatives with respect along the way. “I really appreciate what creatives do,” he says. “I don’t believe in holding a hatchet over their heads or using the threat of a review.”

His all-time favorite spot: “Peanut Butter Dog,” from 1998, showing a boy giving his pet a wad of peanut butter. Ironically, the agency used its own money to produce the spot when it couldn’t convince Manning that the idea would be funny.

The theme of people—and animals—desperately seeking milk after eating sweet or gooey food has been interpreted in many ways. The client initially wanted to keep the action in and around the kitchen, but the agency didn’t take the limitation seriously, putting the characters in hospitals, interrogation rooms, isolation chambers and the zoo.

One of the more memorable spots, 1994’s “Heaven,” with its flaming tagline graphic, almost didn’t get made. The story follows a ruthless businessman who gets hit by a truck and thinks he’s gone to heaven until he realizes there’s no milk to go with the cookies. The obvious drawback of killing someone in a commercial was overcome “by making the guy a real jerk,” says creative director Harry Cocciolo, who created the spot with art director Sean Ehringer. “But the two Jeffs [Goodby and Manning] went round and round over whether there was too much story to tell. If Goodby had not agreed to direct it, the spot never would have happened.”

Goodby also directed a black-and-white series of 1997 ads set in the fictional town of Drysville, where milk is outlawed. Bakeries are bankrupt, cats have run away, and people put water on their cereal. The spots were somber and arty, the humor subtle. Though Goodby says they represent the best directing work he’s done, the series ran only nine months, partly because research found that consumers didn’t put themselves in the characters’ shoes as they did in other milk ads, says Manning.

While network television generally does not allow a commercial to promote more than one product, the milk campaign was regional, and the agency was able to break ground by touting other brands—Cheerios, Wheaties and Rice Krispies among them—alongside milk. The most ambitious effort was a 1995 ad that also promoted General Mills’ Trix cereal. In it, a desperate man turns out to be the manic, animated Trix rabbit.

The few times the campaign has reached beyond the deprivation theme to preach the milk-is-healthy message, the results have been uncertain. In 1999, a humorous ad showed youngsters watching a neighbor’s arms fall off while he does yard work—the man is suffering from a lack of milk. The California state officials who oversee the milk board yanked the spot, saying it was in bad taste. With calcium-fortified foods, soy products and other competitors cutting into milk’s market share, nutrition is likely to be a permanent, if somewhat secondary, part of the campaign, Manning says.

In 1994, after the first year of ads, California milk sales increased 1 percent to 744 million gallons, outpacing the nation, according to Manning. But for the next seven years, sales in both California and the rest of the country were flat, as milk worked to hold its own against trendier soda, juice and coffee beverages. Last year, California sales increased nearly 2 percent to 746 million gallons, while sales in the U.S. as a whole stayed level.

The campaign ran nationwide from 1995-98, when the national Dairy Management Inc. licensed 25 “Got milk?” commercials. Though Goodby’s ads have not run outside California for more than four years, cabbies and secretaries from New York to Dallas still quote from their favorite milk spots when they meet a Goodby employee. The milk board reports that the campaign has a 97 percent awareness rate in California and that 9 out of 10 people nationwide are familiar with the “Got milk?” slogan.

Indeed, the tagline seems to have taken on a life of its own. “It is a reminder to be paranoid,” as Goodby sees it. “And it’s fun to say.” Manning says the milk board licensed the tag to the Milk Processor Education Program in 1998, for use in Bozell’s celebrity milk-mustache campaign, largely because consumers already thought the mustache ads said “Got milk?” The national milk program pays the California board an annual fee for the Goodby tag, which replaced, “Where’s your mustache?” Because Bozell’s approach is not related to Goodby’s theme of milk deprivation, the arrangement is controversial among some past and present agency creatives.

Many of those who have worked on “Got milk?” agree with the copywriter who says the job is like “doing ads for clouds.” The product is so basic that the only requirement for the creative is to satisfy a single strategy. “It is not a case where the creative depends on cultural factors, such as music, casting or social trends,” says McBride. ” ‘Got milk?’ is a simple thought. It is a specific box, and the ads are allowed to explore every inch of that box.” The effect has been that after 10 years of ads for an unbranded commodity, the ads themselves have turned into the brand. Manning and his board don’t promote milk itself as much as they promote the “Got milk?” campaign.

Eight years ago the milk board started selling baby clothes, toys, lunch pails, ice cream scoops, aprons and other items emblazoned with the tagline, reaping about $3 million since then. After Goodby produced three TV spots in fall 2001 promoting the merchandise on Gotmilk.com, sales on the site more than doubled compared with the fourth quarter of 2000, to nearly 5,000 units, says Manning.

Not surprisingly, other commodity marketing associations are eager to mimic the campaign’s fame. Sporting-goods, bowling and wood-products groups are among those that have asked the milk board for advice. “Over the years I’ve heard many clients say, ‘We’ve got to have a compelling truth like “Got milk?” ‘ ” says a “Got milk?” veteran, creative director Bob Kerstetter, who recently launched the agency Lushadelic. “And you have to say: ‘Yeah, well, ya see, the difference is people don’t care if they run out of creamed corn.'”