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Why 1990s ads are so unforgettable

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's blank. There are some things money can't buy, but for everything else, there's blank. If you can identify these brands based on their tagline alone, you probably had a TV in the '90s. The '90s were the peak of brands using taglines and jingles. So did this approach get us to buy the goods they were selling? To answer this, Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast looked at one of the most memorable ads of all time for a pretty unexciting product - milk.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Milk was having a big problem in the '90s. People weren't drinking it as much as they used to. Milk needed a rebrand.

JEFF MANNING: You know, milk advertising had been so serious.

GONZALEZ: This is Jeff Manning, who was the head of the California Milk Processor Board. Now, all of the milk processors in the state decided to basically tax themselves three pennies for every gallon of milk they processed for a big, new marketing effort. They were going to spend over $20 million a year.

MANNING: Which is an insane amount of money.

GONZALEZ: Three ad agencies competed for the big milk gig. The first agency gave their pitch, then the second, and - eh.

MANNING: They were more about milk.

GONZALEZ: Milk - how boring. But then the last agency walks in and, ooh, these guys looked cool.

MANNING: Yeah. I mean, you know, jeans, no socks and penny loafers. yeah.

GONZALEZ: Oh, that sounds so cool (laughter).

MANNING: It was - well...

GONZALEZ: The cool ad guys were from a firm called Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. They walk in like, all right, milk processor board, watch this. We gave our colleagues fun, late-night food, like cereal, and we videotaped them.

MANNING: They cut a hole in the back of the refrigerators. They put a camera in there, and they put in empty milk cartons. So the people grab the bowl of cereal. There's a carton of milk. They shake. It's empty. They pull the other one out. They shake it. That's empty too. And they go crazy.

GONZALEZ: This ended up being called the milk deprivation strategy.

MANNING: Give them the food, and then take milk away. Don't let them have it. And they won the business, obviously.

GONZALEZ: This idea led to a very famous commercial. Some guy is listening to the radio making himself a smooth peanut butter sandwich - no jelly - and a $10,000 question comes on. Who shot Alexander Hamilton?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hello, for $10,000, who...

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Excuse me?

GONZALEZ: The guy's trying to answer. It's Aaron Burr, but he's got peanut-butter mouth and no milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm sorry. Maybe next time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE DIAL TONE)

WHALEN: (As character, muffled) Aaron Burr.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Got milk?

GONZALEZ: Got Milk? A national milk group later licensed the tagline. And very soon, 91% of adults in the U.S. knew Got Milk? - just incredible awareness. But did it actually change behavior, get people to drink more milk? Jeff says they looked at the data. And five years and $100 million into the California campaign, no. People were not drinking more milk.

MANNING: I mean, it's not easy to change consumer behavior.

GONZALEZ: But Jeff says California did stop losing milk consumers. So they stopped the hemorrhage, and that was worth a lot of money. And the campaign did something else. It got us feeling feelings about milk. Companies like Coca-Cola - they are experts at this kind of marketing.

ANNIE WILSON: When you think Coca-Cola, you think happiness. You feel good.

GONZALEZ: Annie Wilson is an ad expert at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. She says this type of advertising is called brand or image marketing. And there are no direct sales goals. It's just, I want you to see the product or the brand and feel good when you do.

WILSON: But I can't measure the return on that - every time you see a Coca-Cola billboard or a Coca-Cola commercial, whether you're going to go out and actually buy Coca-Cola or not.

GONZALEZ: Companies went all-in on brand and image marketing in the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) Mentos - the freshmaker (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As character, singing) Mommy, wow. I'm a big kid now.

GONZALEZ: There were a ton of products coming out in the '90s, so Annie says brands were just trying to capture mind-share over wallet-share even. They didn't care if you bought their products. Brands wanted to be around forever, and they just needed you to know who they were. But Annie says that got a lot harder to pull off after the '90s.

WILSON: There was something genuinely special about the '90s because of where it sits technologically.

GONZALEZ: But mass viewership started to disappear when, among other things, the DVR came out in 1999. Now we could fast-forward commercials. Ooh, that hurt advertisers. And then streaming sites with no commercial options come out. Today, the chances that you and I have seen the same ad are pretty low, which is why brands don't really try to make a new tagline or jingle take off like they used to. There are a few exceptions - credit card companies, car insurance companies, they do still play the long game. They'll throw their ad up on a kids channel.

WILSON: Not because I think kids are going to buy it, and not because I even think their parent's going to buy it. But because when the kid turns a certain age and they need a credit card, for some reason, they just think Mastercard, or they have this good feeling about Mastercard.

GONZALEZ: Dark. OK, but today there's a different type of advertising in the spotlight. It is called performance marketing. These ads do have an immediate sales goal. And they're not really designed to appeal to the masses. They're targeted, because Annie says a lot of brands don't care about everyone knowing their product anymore. They just want their niche target market to know.

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.
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