Milkin' It

The mixed messages behind marketing milk

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Originally published in MISC Magazine, 2016

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There can be few commodities more banal and yet more loaded with meaning than milk.

As the now iconic Goodby Silverstein campaign “Got Milk” demonstrated over its 21-year run, milk can be associated with concepts of health, power, athleticism, creativity, celebrity and even sex. Yet as mountains of research have shown, milk is most often associated with concepts like motherhood, childhood, family, home and happiness, not to mention nostalgia for a time when the grass was greener, the cows were happier (because they actually ate grass in “those” days) and the world was a simpler, less threatening place.

So elastic and self-contradictory is milk as a vessel of meaning that it’s what students of semiotics would call a “floating” or “empty” signifier, which is a signifier that absorbs rather than emits meaning. For example, Duke University professor and literary critic Fredric Jameson suggests that the shark in the Jaws series of films is an empty signifier because it is susceptible to multiple and even contradictory interpretations. Put more simply, that means it has no specific meaning itself, but functions primarily as a vehicle for absorbing any meanings that viewers want to impose upon it. It’s the semiotic equivalent of a black hole.

As difficult as it is to think of a glass of cold, pure white milk as a meaning-eating black hole, this cognitive dissonance is the semiotic chasm that must be crossed in order to brand the stuff. It’s a boring category. People take it for granted, almost as if it were water. You have it every day without thinking about it. It’s almost too bland to brand. Might as well be toilet paper.

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Well, we’re certainly seeing more and more attempts to de-commoditize it. Perhaps the most visible one in recent years was the launch of a milk called Fairlife by Coca-Cola. (Talk about cognitive dissonance! Coke and milk? Google those three words and see what happens when you mix the two). Fairlife is marketed as a lactose-free milk with 50 per cent more protein, 30 per cent more calcium, 50 per cent less sugar and six times the shelf life of the regular milk in your fridge. With no protein powders or additives, it is filtered in such as way as to remove all the lactose and most of the sugar while leaving behind more protein and calcium.

The creators of this new product claim it is made on a dairy farm with “fully sustainable and high-care processes with animals,” coining the term “Grass to Glass” as its mantra (a claim that has been challenged by critics who note that Fairlife cows never see a blade of grass in their entire lives). It also costs twice as much as regular milk, which vaults it into a new category called “value-added” milk.

The ironic twist to the launch of Fairlife is that despite all the health and sustainability claims designed to make us feel ethically warm and fuzzy, the national launch was supported by a campaign of pin-up girls scantily clad in splashes of ‘pure’ white milk, taking the cognitive dissonance to a whole new level (or an old, tired, chauvinistic one, depending on your perspective). The tension between the almost sacred, maternal meaning of milk and the titillating sexuality of these ads is troubling to say the least.

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In what one Coke executive called the “premiumization” of milk, another “value-added” brand out there is something called a2. This product’s differentiator is that it separates the two primary proteins found in milk (a1 and a2). The reason for doing this is that there have been studies suggesting a link between the a1 beta-casein and type 1 diabetes in children and heart disease in adults. The studies, however, are by no means exhaustive so there is not enough proof to definitively claim such outcomes. The value proposition of this product will appeal to anyone who believes these claims without the need to see any evidence that they may be true. Jenny McCarthycomes to mind.

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Despite such flimsy science, the a2 brand uses a very simple visual reference to grass, signifying untouched, pristine nature, and a literal reference to the claim that its cows are grass-fed. As lovely a picture as that paints, it’s hard to imagine producing milk at scale from herds of cattle that spend much time in pasture.

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See the problem? Whether you’re branding something like the new carbonated milk-based beverage named Vio, another of Coke’s attempts to fan the fizz) or the pea-based high protein vegan milk Ripple, it requires quite a lot of velocity to escape the gravitational pull of the semiotic black hole called milk. wn