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"Got Milk?" A Closer Look at Dairy Checkoff Programs

The Got Milk advertising campaign is a well-known example of a checkoff program, pushing the public to consume animal products.

The Got Milk advertising campaign is a well-known example of a checkoff program, part of a long-standing government campaign to encourage consumers to disproportionately purchase animal products.

We’ve all seen them: “Got Milk?” commercials featuring people who find themselves in uncomfortable situations, with a full mouth but no milk to wash the food down. At the end of these advertisements—which ran from the mid-1990s to 2014—the actor looks directly at the camera and the words ‘Got Milk?” are boldly displayed. For decades, the Got Milk advertising campaign effectively encouraged the consumption of milk after sales had been sagging, effectively making what had once been considered a boring product cool again.

Understanding Checkoff Programs

The Got Milk advertising campaign is a well-known example of a checkoff program, part of a long-standing government campaign to encourage consumers to disproportionately purchase animal products. The way checkoff programs work is pretty simple; Congress levies a small fee on certain agricultural products, and the collected funds are used to pay national marketing organizations to promote these products.

The US Department of Agriculture contributes more than $500 million annually toward meat and dairy checkoff programs that heavily market animal products. Dairy, pork, and beef producers pay directly into checkoff programs. Per $100 sold, dairy farmers pay 80 cents, pork producers pay 40 cents, and beef producers pay seven cents.

These programs work—and reap enormous benefits for animal agribusinesses. These initiatives are highly effective at getting consumers to purchase more animal products. Every dollar spent on marketing boosts meat and dairy sales by $8. In Meatonomics, David Robinson Simon outlines how specific industries profit from these programs. The beef checkoff program raises sales by $5 per checkoff dollar spent, the pork checkoff program raises sales by $14 per dollar spent, and the lamb checkoff program boosts sales by a shocking $38 per dollar spent. Perhaps most notable, however, is that the dairy checkoff program led individuals to consume an additional 47 servings of dairy products in a year and a half span.

A Closer Look at Dairy Checkoffs 

Dairy checkoff programs began after World War II, when the production of dairy products was outpacing consumption. They required farmers to pay a percentage of their harvest into a national fund that essentially serves as a marketing agency for dairy products.

Since then, they’ve ballooned into an enormous government expenditure. In 2016, the Department of Agriculture contributed at least $526 million toward public marketing campaigns for dairy, promoting catchy slogans like ‘Got Milk?’, ‘Milk Life’, and ‘My Morning Protein.’ In California, milk sales had been declining for about 15 years when the California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) hired an ad agency to create advertising dedicated to selling milk.

The intent of dairy checkoff programs is public and indisputable. The programs work to “develop and finance generic advertising programs that are designed to maintain and expand markets and uses for fluid milk products produced in the U.S,”  according to the Department of Agriculture Report to Congress on the Dairy Promotion and Research Program and the Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program.

Checkoff programs have fallen under the control of commodity trade organizations representing global agribusiness interests. Corruption plagues these programs; a recent scandal revealed that one nonprofit, Dairy Management Inc, was supposed to promote dairy but instead paid its leaders millions of dollars.

Targeting Communities of Color 

Despite dairy’s negative health effects, the industry successfully markets its products to communities of color who are disproportionately intolerant to dairy. The industry runs manipulative advertising campaigns and influences the government’s dietary guidelines, which exacerbates health disparities between white and non-white populations.

Research has shown that Black, Indigenous, and People of the Global Majority (BIPGM) are disproportionately harmed by consuming dairy products. While fewer than a quarter of Caucasians are lactose intolerant, 90 percent of Asians, 79 percent of Indigenous people, 75 percent of African Americans, and 51 percent of Hispanics lack the enzymes required to break down lactase. Additionally, African Americans are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, 60 percent more likely to be diabetic, and 20 percent more likely to die from heart disease. While many factors are associated with an increased risk of these illnesses, they have all been linked to high levels of dairy consumption.

Nevertheless, the federal government’s dairy checkoff programs specifically target Hispanic consumers—despite the fact that more than half of the US Hispanic population is lactose intolerant. The report states that “the Fluid Milk Board sought to educate the general market and Hispanic consumers on the importance of protein in the morning and milk’s essential nutrients” and “continued its efforts to position chocolate milk as the recovery beverage of choice for athletes after strenuous exercise.”

In 2001, in California, the government ran a Spanish-language television ad, “La Llorona,” based upon a popular Mexican folktale about a woman who drowned her children to spite her adulterous husband. In this commercial, the ghost of La Llorona goes to get milk from the fridge, and begins to weep when she finds the carton empty. While it’s not entirely clear if the bizarre concept was a success, it’s yet another undeniable example of how government checkoff programs targeted Hispanic consumers.

Furthermore, despite mounting research on dairy’s negative health effects, the recently-released 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend three daily servings of dairy. It is an inherent conflict of interest at play when the government has a vested interest in promoting the consumption of animal products yet is also responsible for establishing public health policies and setting dietary guidelines and school lunch policies.

Potential Reform 

From a purely economic standpoint, policymakers on both sides of the political aisle are recognizing the inefficiency of checkoff programs and beginning to act. Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), an organization working to break the stranglehold of corporate consolidation in food and agriculture, has been a vocal proponent of checkoff program reform, and more than half of the nation’s cattle producers have rejected the notion that checkoff programs are helpful to their farms.

In Congress, the proposed Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act (S. 935) prohibits lobbying trade organizations from receiving checkoff funds, and forces checkoff programs to publish their budgets and undergo periodic audits. This bipartisan bill was sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and was supported by over 100 organizations.

While this bill just scratches the surface of what checkoff reform may look like, it’s particularly important in that it raises awareness for how checkoff programs work, and what an enormous and costly impact they have on consumer behavior. It’s time we shine light on this critical issue, and raise awareness for the government’s involvement in meat and dairy marketing in this country.

Noa Dalzell is a graduate student at Northeastern University and FFAC Fellow.