Luke Dringoli
Luke Dringoli
Editor, Social Networks

Why Milk’s PMS Campaign Went Sour

Over the past few weeks, a bold campaign by the California Milk Processor Board, featuring men as suffering victims of PMS-crazed women and milk as the cure, has become the latest poster child for brands using shock and awe to generate online conversation at any cost. If controversy is its own reward, the campaign was a smashing success. But since the campaign, and its spiritual home at everythingidoiswrong.org, was hastily shuttered late last week, it seems very forgiving to call it a smash hit, doesn’t it?

The Facts:

The creators: San Francisco-based agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners — the same heads responsible for the long-running “got milk?” slogan. The client: the creepily named California Milk Processor Board. The campaign: A “funny, good-natured” take on PMS and milk’s purported powers to lessen its symptoms. The light-hearted approach to the touchy-by-definition subject matter offered pre-approved apologies men could tell the women in their lives such as, “I’m sorry I listened to what you said and not what you meant.” A tongue-in-cheek microsite called everythingidoiswrong.org (no longer live) provided men with a resource on how to deal with their PMS-suffering partner. The content was linked to from a print campaign whose ads feature damned and desperate men illustrating the question: “Are you a man living with PMS?” For men it’s a solution; for women it’s a flame accelerant. Media, content, conversation…what’s not to like?

The Controversy:

The overall intent appears more to inspire the ire of female sufferers for the sake of publicity than to playfully propose milk as an antidote for not just women, but men. Dysphoria, irritability, anxiety, and a hint of irrationality are just some of the negative emotions the California Milk Processor Board evoked.

The Coroner’s Report:

Why did this campaign go sour so fast, and was its death predictable or avoidable? Did milk go too far? It would certainly appear so… The microsite, planned to run through August at least, has been shut down prematurely and replaced with gotdiscussion.org, a half-hearted attempt to convert all that controversy into a productive sales funnel. It’s easy to argue (and tough to retort) that the campaign’s humor went too far. But the question you always have to ask these days: Was all of it intentional? Is it true there’s no such thing as bad press…is every social media failure a meta-success? Nope. As illustrated in this case, sometimes it’s just a failure.

First step in the diagnosis is to acknowledge that this is nothing new. The technical claim “Milk can reduce the symptoms of PMS,” springs from research dating back to 2005 (featured here), which found that getting 1200 mg of calcium per day (basically, four full glasses of milk) reduced symptoms in 55% of women. Because nothing fights that bloated feeling like drinking four full gas-inducing glasses of milk in a day.

The idea that milk could magically reduce PMS, and thereby produce all sort of positive benefits for PMS-punished men, actually began that same year, as previously advertised:

In fact, as Steve James, executive director of the milk board tells The New York Times, it’s “something we’ve done as a campaign five, six times, in general media and in Hispanic media.” So how come 2005′s spots didn’t offend like 2011′s? According to Goodby, “It was a different world in 2005.” Indeed. To steal a good point from AdWeek’s list of the top 10 most piggishly sexist ads ever: The blunt sexism of previous generations now seems otherworldly, but more fingers are being pointed at ads of today that are significantly less sexist in nature and more humorous and tongue-and-cheek in tone.

But we have to ask the question: Are we not being too sensitive? Is a clever (but admittedly edgy and insensitive) approach to advertising a brand claim being unfairly sunk as sexist? Could be. If these great FunnyorDie.com parody ads are any indication, Milk certainly could have done much worse.

In fairness to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, by all unoffended accounts the spots and supporting digital presence are legitimately funny and, more importantly, very well executed. If they took a joke too far, the original everythingidoiswrong.org microsite did it in style, with a global color-coded PMS system, a “puppy-dog eye-zer” photo app that gives any wrongfully endangered dude adorable puppy eyes, a Sensitivity Vocabulator, and even an emergency milk locator (nice product tie-in, guys). The campaign appeals well to a great number of men, while successfully getting the other gender talking. Which is supposed to be what social media is all about.

Everything I Do Is Wrong: Milk PMS Microsite

THE FALLOUT

But there’s no use crying over spilt milk campaigns. (Come on, you knew we couldn’t resist that one.) Everythingidoiswrong.org was quickly replaced with gotdiscussion.org, a seemingly earnest mea culpa featuring a brief apology on behalf of the brand and a rundown of comments and news articles posted. Agency head Jeff Goodby proclaimed, “I don’t see it as ending it or pulling the plug. We accomplished what we set out to accomplish.” Steve James from the milk board talked to The New York Times when the campaign was set to launch, admitting they hoped to “get attention” and “ignite some social media discussion and conversation.”

Brave talk that explains a well thought-out strategy…but quick research reveals that the domain name for gotdiscussion.org wasn’t even registered until July 18th, after the initial campaign had launched. Bravo to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for cleaning it up quickly, but let’s not pretend nobody dropped the jug. AdWeek declines to accept this success talk, and so do we.

Here’s why: Getting a piano-playing cat or a dentist-drugged kid to go viral is child’s play. But when marketing for a brand, we don’t get the freedom to gauge a campaign solely on the noise it generates—it has to move product. The central communication goal was to make people understand that milk can alleviate PMS symptoms, for the purpose of selling more milk. The perceived sexism of the ads was a major backfire—if someone thinks a creative execution is “wrongheaded,” they’ll be disinclined to believe the point the brand is trying to make. In this case they offended the gender making the purchases. “It certainly wasn’t our intention to offend people. We regret that,” says Jeff Goodby now. “No question, with some people we have stepped over the line.”

To be fair, nobody’s going to boycott milk. The reactionary site gotdiscussion.org contains little more than a collection of inflammatory articles and comments, but the anger is either losing steam or being infiltrated by brand-friend positivity police.

And that, ultimately, is this campaign’s great failure. New social media presences produced nominally to “continue the conversation” are being neglected by the brand—at this point, the brand hasn’t posted on Facebook since July 11th, when the new campaign first launched, and they rarely if ever respond to the myriad of comments. Hardly a robust, two-way brand-consumer conversation. The missed opportunity is the genuine discussion going on with real people right now at gotdiscussion.org. Milk, or their agency proxies, need to get involved, converting the reactionary anger on gotdiscussion.org to a well-hosted home of milk-related topics. If the California Milk Processor Board is going to follow up with an earnest invitation to talk things out, they must actively participate with no exceptions. It’s a captive audience eager to actually talk about your product—stop covering your ass and dare to meet your detractors face to face.

What’s your prediction on how this running story will end? Talk to us below.

  • Marc

    Great post – the very fact we have to even ask ourselves is a flub on purpose shows that we know as marketers how hard it is to get the numbers of yesterday and to what lengths we can perceive a brand would go to to get them.

    I can’t say much more that wasn’t perfectly covered here – I will add that I do believe Goodby’s 2005 take was much more subtle (easier to do on TV than a deep dive online engagement) than the recent PMS site. I guarantee that 2005 comic subtlety made both sexes chuckle.

    I’ll close on one provocative note – Currently -
    advertising is littered with man-bashing humor, and eye-rolling women chastising idiotic men (cut to him setting himself on fire at bbq, etc.).

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