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Got Propaganda? Why All of the Milk Industry's Health Claims Have Been Proven Wrong

Marketers have been trying desperately for over a decade to increase the public's consumption of milk, but they keep failing. Here's why.
 
 
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Selling milk looks easy and even fun when you see the celebrity milk-mustache ads. "Got Milk?" ads may be the most recognizable and spoofed of all ad campaigns, yet they are probably also one of the least successful: Milk sales have actually fallen every year since the ads began. The National Dairy Promotion and Research Program and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program admit "consumption has been declining for decades in the United States at about 1.0 percent per year," in their yearly reports to Congress but plead that their marketing has "helped mitigate at least some of this decline." Key words "help," "at least" and "some."

Why the milk-drinking slide? First, many U.S. groups simply do not drink much, or any, milk -- including ethnic minorities, those who are lactose intolerant or allergic, dieters, the health conscious, and vegans. Kids themselves often dislike milk -- probably why they invented chocolate and flavored milk -- and it is often the last choice among teens and tweens, on whom much milk marketing is focused. Healthcare professionals, unless subsidized by the dairy industry, seldom recommend milk because of its cholesterol, fat, calories, allergens and impurities and its possible links to rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) since milk made with the cow milk enhancer has never been labeled. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby boom-era pediatrician, recommended no milk for children after age two to reduce their risks of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and diet-related cancers.

Milk marketers admit that the public's "preference" for milk may be changing, but also blame calcium-fortified juices and vitamin-enhanced beverages that "undermine" milk's healthy image. They also point the finger at "limited availability" of milk in eating establishments and even milk's price. You can't find milk anywhere -- and when you do, you can't afford it, they claim. The agencies note that national milk sales are falling because the proportion of children under six has not grown much and as the "proportion of African Americans in the population increases" -- a group not known to be big milk drinkers due to higher rates of lactose intolerance. 

Milk marketers have tried everything to reverse falling sales. During the 1980s when the slogan was "Milk: It Does a Body Good," they began marketing milk for strong bones and to prevent osteoporosis. "One in five victims of osteoporosis is male," said milk ads featuring model Tyra Banks, as the mustache campaign debuted. "Don't worry. Calcium can help prevent it." Another early mustache ad with musician Marc Anthony read, "Shake it, don't break it. Want strong bones? Drinking enough lowfat milk now can help prevent osteoporosis later."

But the campaign had both marketing and scientific problems. Teens and tweens don't worry much about old-people diseases like osteoporosis because who's gonna get old? And African Americans, Latinos and men, groups targeted in the strong bone campaign, are the least at risk for osteoporosis say doctors. Oops.

Health professionals also disputed the bone claims. A 2001 USDA expert panel report said that calcium intake by itself, as milk offers, does not prevent osteoporosis because exercise and nutrients other than calcium are part of the bone health picture. Panelists also said whole milk could increase the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease and ads should include such warnings.

And other experts like T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study and heart expert Dean Ornish of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, agreed that osteoporosis and fractures are not caused by what marketers were presenting as "milk deficiencies." In fact, the Western diet, which often has too much protein and acid, is blamed by some researchers and nutritionists for osteoporosis and fractures. The popular proton pump inhibitors like Nexium, Prevacid and Prilosec, which people take for acid reflux, are also blamed for fractures.

Undaunted, in 2002, milk marketers told Congress they were marketing the scientific benefits of milk for osteoporosis, breast cancer and hypertension and especially focusing on African Americans. "The Fluid Milk Board continues to spotlight the high incidence of high blood pressure among African Americans and to promote milk and milk products as a dietary solution as part of the DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] diet," says the report to Congress. "The program also addresses misconceptions about lactose intolerance and shows why it should not be a barrier to including milk in the diet. The Board launched a new lactose intolerance initiative that focuses on educating African Americans on the importance of incorporating milk into their diet. The programs provided educational material on osteoporosis and lactose intolerance." 

Milk marketers may also have taken a cue from the cartoon character Joe Camel, used by R.J. Reynolds to market Camel cigarettes. Milk containers were redesigned into new hand-friendly decanters, called the Chug and a spoof-y musical group was rolled out on YouTube and social-networking sites called White Gold and the Calcium Twins

The "Got Milk?" site also ran an animated cartoon of a farm depicting happy cows, chickens, ducks, and pigs (and a horse working out on a treadmill), while milk cartons moved by on a conveyor belt. A helium balloon pops up continually, saying, "Tell Your Friends." 

"Do you think drinking calcium fortified beverages like soy drinks and orange juice will meet your bones' 'requirements?'" asks the site, which was live until 2008. "Not really, says research that concluded 75 percent of calcium added to popular beverages gets left at the bottom of the carton." But then, a disclaimer pops up and confesses that milk's actual benefits for "bones, PMS, sleep, teeth, hair, muscles [and] nails" have been "purposefully exaggerated so as not to bore you." What?

And that's the least of the student marketing. Posters of milk mustache-wearing actors, sports figures, musicians, and models are sent to 60,000 U.S. elementary schools and 45,000 middle and high schools. Ads also appear in Sports Illustrated for Kids, Spin, Electronic Gaming, CosmoGirl, Blender, Seventeen and elsewhere. Students have been told if they visit milk Web sites they can win an iPod, a Fender guitar, clothes from Adidas and Baby Phat and their schools could qualify for sports gear, classroom supplies and musical instruments. There was also peer-to-peer, in-class selling at three California schools where students got a chance to create their own "Got Milk?" campaigns and qualify for an all-expense-paid trip to San Francisco to present their ideas to milk officials for future milk marketing campaigns.  The cost of an ad campaign guaranteed to sell milk to teens because it was created by teens? Priceless.

In 2005, milk marketers tried to widen the demographic by positioning milk as a cure for premenstrual syndrome, commonly called PMS. TV ads showed bumbling boyfriends and husbands rushing to the store for milk to detoxify their stricken women. But the study on which the campaign was based, credited calcium, not milk, with relieving PMS -- a substance found in many sources besides milk (including the "calcium-fortified juices" that milk marketers battle against). And when milk marketers tried to revive the PMS campaign in 2011, the second time around it elicited a tsunami of sexism charges and had to be scrapped.

Then, milk marketers sought an even wider demographic by rolling out the idea of milk as a diet food. "Studies suggest that the nutrients in milk can play an important role in weight loss. So if you're trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, try drinking 24 ounces of low-fat or fat-free milk every 24 hours as part of your reduced-calorie diet," said the ads. The diet campaign was especially targeted to the Hispanic community, which is known both for its high obesity rates and its low milk consumption. There was even a related school program called "Healthiest Student Bodies," which recognized 25 schools around the country for providing "an environment that encourages healthy choices for students."

The milk-as-a-diet-food campaign had many catchy slogans -- "Milk Your Diet," "Body by Milk," "Think About Your Drink," "Why Milk?" "24oz/24hours, 3-a-Day" (and, of course, "Got Milk?") -- and had the help of hotties Elizabeth Hurley and Sheryl Crow modeling mustaches. But soon after it debuted, a study of 20,000 men who increased their intake of low-fat dairy foods found they did not lose weight. "The hypothesis that has been floating around is that increasing dairy can promote weight loss, and in this study, I did not find that," said researcher Swapnil Rajpathak, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Worse, the research behind the weight-loss claims was largely conducted by Michael Zemel, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, who had "patented" the claim that calcium or dairy products could help against obesity. The patent was owned by the university and licensed to Dairy Management Inc., reported USA Today.

The milk-as-a-diet-food suggestions also did not sound like they would produce weight loss. They included, "Make soups and chowders with milk," "Add milk to risotto and rice dishes for a creamier texture," and "Order a milk-based soup like corn chowder, potato leek or cream of broccoli as a first course at dinner."

What is the next course -- a stick of butter? 

Soon the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection directed milk marketers to stop the weight-loss campaign "until further research provides stronger, more conclusive evidence of an association between dairy consumption and weight loss." Milk marketing materials stopped claiming that milk makes drinkers lose weight, instead saying it doesn't necessarily add weight -- which is pretty different. They also retooled their claims to say that milk may have "certain nutrients that can help consumers meet dietary requirements" -- pretty much the definition of "food."

In February, milk marketers went for an even wider demographic -- the set of all people who eat little or no breakfast, or at least a breakfast without milk. Using the bilingual actress Salma Hayek as pitchwoman, the new campaign, called the Breakfast Project, also targets Spanish-speaking communities with ads in People en Español and Ser Padres magazines and on the Univision morning show "Despierta América" as well as on English-speaking media. "It's Not Breakfast Without Milk," say the new slogans, "Because Every Good Day Starts With Milk," and "Hello, Sunshine."

Like other milk marketing campaigns, the Breakfast Project is upbeat, interactive, inclusive and fun, offering recipes, tips, a "morning survival guide" and even a chance to win free milk. And like the other campaigns, it has little chance of selling a product people don't particular like which is not particularly good for them. We won't even talk about the filth and cruelty of industrial dairy farms and what happens to veal calves (which are byproducts of the dairy industry's need to keep cows lactating).

Still, milk marketers seem to have learned one lesson from the disproved osteoporosis, PMS and weight loss claims of past campaigns: the Breakfast Project makes no appeal to science or medicine to support the marketed milk benefits. Instead of "studies have shown," or "research has revealed" the new campaign simply says, "We believe milk is part of getting a successful day started." Of course they believe it -- they're the dairy industry. But will consumers finally be swayed by their marketing magic, or will the milk-drinking slump continue?  

Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets.
 
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