20 Years of ‘Got Milk?’

How such a boring product got such a classic advertising campaign

—Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners wrote “got milk?”—one of the greatest marketing taglines ever. Here, he looks back at the campaign on its 20th anniversary.

It is perhaps the most boring product imaginable.

We have all tried it. Most of us already own some. There is very little to say about it.

Milk is not new. It is not improved. It is white.

And so it was that when the California Milk Processor Board first asked us to pitch their business in 1993, we were shockingly ambivalent. A number of us simply thought the product was inherently too boring.

Oversimplifications of the history abound. Here’s what really happened: Jon Steel and Carole Rankin were at a focus group when the clouds parted and a woman said, “The only time I even think about milk is when I run out of it.” Goodby scrawled “got milk?” on a poster board for a meeting and decided it might be a tagline. And Silverstein set it in that typeface that has by now been appropriated (“got ____?”) by lots of junk, donuts, wine and Jesus folks.

And of course, a 20-year downturn in California milk consumption leveled off and has even headed upward now and then.

Actually, there were a number of false starts before all that, as you can imagine. Someone noted that people always seem to drink milk along with something else—which was a fine insight, but they wanted to call the campaign “Milk and…” There was also a contingent that perhaps loved hard, milk-fed bodies and whiter teeth a little too much.

In the end, however, the consummate patience and advice of the California Milk Processor Board members, their directors Steve James and Jeff Manning and a cadre of artists like Kinka Usher, Noam Murrow, Michael Bay, Tom Kuntz, Jonathan Elias, Don Piestrup, Terry Heffernan, B-Reel and Method (and hundreds of others there is not room to name) made all the difference. Not to mention dozens of my favorite people ever to have worked at Goodby Silverstein & Partners (if I begin listing them, I am certainly in trouble).

Our research shows that “got milk?” has become the most remembered tagline in beverage history, outstripping those of beer and soft drink companies with budgets many times the size of ours. It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that people don’t think of it as a tagline anymore. It is a piece of culture that was always just … there.

We have always felt that it’s fitting that the campaign got its start in California, which is at the leading edge of experimentation and health trends. But it has been a long time since it was exclusively a GSP creation. After a period in which the California campaign ran nationally, it has been ably extended by a number of national agencies, and extended into Hispanic America by John Gallegos with a unique humor and artistry.

In short, we have all been very lucky to find each other and have this happen. When something lasts 20 years in a very pure form, it reminds us all how much serendipity and chance contribute to what we like to think is a very orderly, brilliantly orchestrated process.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything. May we have 20 more, please.

Jeff Goodby is co-chairman and partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.