Advertising

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Milk”

Who needs mammals?

Nancy Friedman
6 min readNov 24, 2023

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Outdoor ad in San Francisco for the California Milk Processor Board’s 2023 “Get Real. Got Milk?” campaign. Photo: Nancy Friedman

One of the most beloved and longest-running advertising campaigns in U.S. history made its debut 30 years ago with a short, conversational tagline: “Got milk?” The ads were notable for what they didn’t depict: no brand name, no product. Instead, the campaign, created for the California Milk Processor Board by San Francisco’s Goodby Silverstein & Partners, focused on what was missing: a cold, delicious glass of milk to wash down that peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich or that big chocolate-chip cookie.

To further tempt you, the ads brought in celebrities who posed with conspicuous milk mustaches below their noses: Harrison Ford, Britney Spears, Shaquille O’Neal, the Olsen twins, even Kermit the Frog.

One-time child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in a 2004 “Got Milk?” print ad.

The ads, which ran continuously from 1993 through 2014, were premised on the assumption that if you Got Milk you got it from the swollen udders of cows. Milk was, as one standard definition puts it, “an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young.”

But in the decades that followed, that definition became less and less definitive. Milk, it turns out, can come from many sources other than “female mammals.” Nor is this news: It turns out we’ve been milking the concept for centuries.

Take almond milk, one of the more popular dairy substitutes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first time “almond milk” appeared in print was around 1381, in a recipe that instructed the cook to simmer an ingredient in “almonde mylk or kyne [cow’s] mylke.” Cooks knew even then that the mylk in question was the whitish liquid that results from grinding and pressing raw almonds.

Other “milks” go back even further. Here’s a remedy written in Old English, the dominant language in Britain between the fifth and thirteenth centuries CE: “Wið weartan genim þysse ylcan wyrte [sc. spurge’s] meolc & clufþungan wos, do to þære weartan.” Translation: “With warts, take the wort (spurge’s) milk & clove-tongues ooze, apply to the warts.” (Spurge…

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.