In 1993, a focus group headed by Jon Steel, a partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, asked respondents not to consume milk for a week prior to participating in the study. Steel’s aim was to gather information about milk habits that would inform his pitch to a new client, the California Milk Processor Board, which was looking for creative strategies to boost sales.
When the respondents showed up, they were a little anxious about being deprived of the household staple. One man relayed his experience of coming downstairs to the kitchen in the morning before work, pouring out his cereal, slicing bananas on top of it, and then remembering his promise of abstinence. An ethical dilemma arose, the man later admitted to Steel. Would he use milk and simply lie to the rest of focus group? Or would he throw out the cereal? Worse yet, would he eat the cereal without milk?
A conversation snowballed in the room, and it became clear from others’ testimonials that consumers felt an emotional connection to an everyday product. The absence of milk became noticeable, like a tear in a perfect canvas. Steel had a hunch he was onto something seismic. That hunch led to one of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time.
A perfect encapsulation of the ’90s, Got Milk? is an indelible piece of advertising-turned-pop culture. If the ’90s were the decade that saw celebrity culture reach a new apex, the campaign is its holy grail. It was a wellspring of stars of film, TV, sports, and politics–a swap meet of high and low, where Bill Clinton and Bob Dole occupy the same advertising universe as Van Halen and Dennis Rodman, and The Simpsons are as potent a reference as Diane Arbus. During the two decades that Got Milk? dominated the public consciousness, more than 70 commercials ran on television in California alone, and some 350 milk mustache ads ran nationally in print and on TV—at a time when those two media were still all powerful. Any given day, an estimated 80% of all U.S. consumers came into contact with that innocent little question: Got Milk? The campaign won multiple top industry awards. It was parodied and copied. At the height of the craze, the slogan was as ubiquitous as the very stuff it was selling. “There was something so perfectly hip about it,” says Edward Wasserman, the dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “They start with a product with no personality, which, if anything, was forced upon generations of children, which very few adults drank or would admit to drinking, whose health benefits are questionable, whose environmental impact is dubious, and they turned it into something that had a kind of panache. They had a concession of unlikely subjects and had them pose in a way that most people would have deemed a self-parody or ludicrous. And yet, it worked.”
Twenty-five years later, the success of Got Milk? remains unmatched in the ad world.