What is with the arts field’s obsession with the Got Milk? ad campaign? I feel like every time the subject of an ad campaign or slogan comes up, Got Milk is immediately referenced–it’s practically the Godwin’s Law of arts marketing. At NPAC, I apparently wasn’t the only one to groan when I learned that the most popular answer selected by attendees to the question “what should we do about arts advocacy and communicating our value at the national level” was the following: “Organize a national media campaign with celebrity spokespersons, catchy slogans (e.g. ‘Got Milk’), unified message, and compelling stories.” As Greg Sandow points out over at ArtsJournal:

[W]hat was missing from all of this was any discussion of the world in which these initiatives will have to be launched. And without that discussion, how can anybody know which of the many ideas presented are likely to work? Just imagine a commercial company making plans to promote a product. Wouldn’t they do market research? Wouldn’t they want to know what people think of the product, and what things about the product might (or might not) be appealing?

And yet here we have the arts — an endeavor that most people involved would think was far more important than a mere commercial marketing campaign — and all we bring to it is (forgive me) unfocused amateur enthusiasm. Organize a media campaign! Well, what’s it going to say? OK, fine, leave that to the professionals who’ll eventually run it. But if you yourself have no idea, how will you know whether the professionals will make sensible plans? (And, by the way, who’s going to pay for this campaign? It’s going to be expensive.)

Greg hits the nail on the head here, but it’s interesting to me that no one has asked an even more obvious question: did the “Got Milk?” campaign (or others like it) even work? Sure, it was witty and memorable and entered public consciousness and became parodied by everyone from Saturday Night Live to the New England Foundation for the Arts‘s Matchbook.org project, which asks on the front page, “Got Mariachi?” In a sense, as a work of art (as commercial ad campaigns go), it was very successful. But was it successful as a commercial ad campaign? Did it increase sales? Did it cause milk to be a greater, more meaningful part of people’s lives?

And the surprising answer is no! The Got Milk? campaign was introduced in October 1993. Consumption of plain (i.e., non-flavored whole, skim, and lowfat) milk in the US had been on a generally upward trend since 1987, peaking at 52.3 billion pounds in 1991. Yet during the heyday of the Got Milk? campaign in the mid-’90s, US plain milk consumption actually declined 2.3% from 52.2 billion pounds in 1992 to 51 billion in 1998, lower than in 1987! Worse, per capita plain milk consumption fell 6.7% during the same period. The Got Milk? campaign has continued running into the new millennium, and sales and consumption figures have only continued their decline, despite rising demand for flavored milk, cream, and yogurt. Now, obviously, it’s silly to conclude from this that one of the most successful ad campaigns in history is actually causing people to drink less milk. Rather, the lesson is that the societal forces and generational shifts that are causing people to drink less milk are too powerful for even the greatest ad campaign in the world to overcome.

I hope we think about this the next time we’re tempted to look to marketing or advertising as the answer to all of our problems as a field. To be sure, an ad campaign can work wonders in the right context and under the right circumstances. But advertising history is littered with high-profile failures, too. Another suggestion from the NPAC final session was “Establish a National Arts Day/Festival with free performances, open houses, and art-making opportunities.” But really, how many national what-have-you days/weeks/months are there already that we never hear about? Did you know that November is Celebrating Philanthropy Month, for example?

Do we really want to roll the dice with the limited resources we have as a field, essentially playing double or nothing? Or do we want to invest those resources more wisely, by investigating small changes that make a big difference?

  • Anonymous

    Very thoughtfu post! But, I am curious how you know about MatchBook.org – not from the Mariachi campaign, I’m guessing!

    Ann C. Wicks
    Marketing & Communications Manager
    New England Foundation for the Arts

  • Ian David Moss

    Ah, the wonders of the internet…I could just as well ask you how you found my blog! The truth is that I was researching cultural data collection efforts for work and came upon the excellent CultureCount, which in turn led me to matchbook.org. It’s a nice-looking website, I must say.

  • Anonymous

    I too attended NPAC and vigorously debated all of the issues on which we voted. Again, this is a “town hall” meeting. Most people in the room are merely citizens, not experts. Individually, we brought our own experience and knowledge to the table in the discussion. The questions were put forth to a large body of incredibly diverse backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. Greg Sandow misses the point. Of course, we’re going to follow this up with research and development. We had about two hours to vote on nine questions. Can you imagine how long it would have taken were we to present and debate a boatload of statistical and expert data?

    Regarding the “got milk” campaign, it is not a sales campaign, but a branding one. It serves its purpose well. By describing it as the Godwin’s Law of marketing, you clearly support how powerful it is as a campaign. I think we can all agree that the decline in milk consumption is due to forces outside of the campaign (rising health issues, recent medical research on milk consumption, surprising cost increases of the last three years, and a bevy of alternate products [i.e. soy milk] on the market).

    Yes, there are dozens of things a theatre company can be addressing in regards to audience development. But on a national level, the field of theatre in particular does a very poor job of promoting itself. At the local and organizational level, there are many things that arts organizations can and should be doing to address their dwindling audiences. But at the national level, a strong, branding campaign can put butts in the seats. And no, I don’t know who’s going to pay for it yet, or who runs it, or what exactly it’s going to say..but that’s not what we sat in that room to decide. That comes next.

    I don’t think you or Greg give enough credit to artists and arts administrators. None of the things we voted on is a magic bullet; I don’t think a single person in the room believed that. But as one part of a multi-faceted strategy, especiall on the national level, a branding, awareness, and exposure campaign for the arts is a strong, viable component and definitely worth further investigation and discussion.

  • Ian David Moss

    Hi Anonymous,
    These are fair points. I don’t want you to think that I am dismissing the talents or expertise of the people in the room, since I argued with Greg on his blog about this very topic. But the main thrust of this post was to ask why no one was apparently aware of this facet of the Got Milk? campaign, the fact that all the wonderful press and exposure in the world did not translate into positive economic outcomes for its sponsors. It’s relevant for the performing arts because, like milk sellers, we are attempting to give voice and an identity to something that people are aware exists but don’t usually think about. Something that’s not fundamentally exciting to them (otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion). No matter how much we may care about the arts, we cannot lose site of this basic feature of the terrain. I’m not trying to suggest that a national ad campaign would never, under any circumstances, be a good idea. But I don’t think we’re there yet. There needs to be a greater presence and meaning for art in people’s lives FIRST, so that they will be open to the ad campaign when it comes. And that can only (currently) happen at the local level, in my opinion.