Thursday, April 16, 2009

Language Barrier: Got Milk?

I wrote yesterday about the meaning of the idiom True to Words and how similar phrases across languages are often unique to their native culture. I promised at the end of the post that I would write about how because of this, some popular American ad campaigns were lost in translation after they were exported to other countries. Well, this is the first in what is sure to be a long series of posts about marketing gaffes caused after language barriers were scaled.

Got Milk?

Oh, you've heard this one before. If you haven't heard the "Got Milk?" tag line of the California Milk Processor Board's ad campaign, you've been living under rock since approximately 1993. If you've forgotten what the original commercials were like though, the first is here for your viewing pleasure.

The gist: You just ate cookies or a peanut butter sandwich and your mouth is aching for that perfect beverage to wash it all down. Got Milk?

Who knew a peanut butter sandwich could cost you $10,000? Should you go without the gooey stuff, lest your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth? Of course not, get some milk, silly.

And people did. This simple little phrase helped to greatly increase milk sales nationwide after a 15-year slump. Celebrities wanted in on the action, and the list of endorsers goes on and on. When campaigns are such great successes, there are attempts to expand their messages to greater audiences. Funny how the "Got Milk?" Wikipedia entry doesn't mention any of this, but... that's where the trouble started.

Encouraged by the advertisement's early success, the Milk Board set their sights on the Latino community in California. As it turns out, they needed an entirely new slogan: "Got Milk?" translates to "Are you lactating?" in Spanish. Whoops.

Additionally, the premise of the campaign - avoiding the annoyance of running out of milk - needed to be redeveloped entirely. Due to cultural nuances, the idea of a Latina mother running out of milk or certain other staples is outright offensive and not funny. Even more to the point, the "Got Milk?" campaign was aimed at anyone of any age who might run out of milk, not directly at mothers and grandmothers who are the traditional providers of milk in Latina households.

Instead, a different, more appropriate approach was employed for the Hispanic campaign. The Milk Deprivation Strategy was replaced with Milk Generations Strategy. The campaign had the tag line "Y Usted, Les dio suficiente leche hoy?" ("And you, did you give them enough milk today?"). The ads highlighted family recipes that used milk as the main ingredient, like flan, bread pudding, and three-milk cake. Eventually, the tag line changed to "Familia Amor y Leche" ("Family, Love and Milk.").

The campaigns now successfully position milk as an essential part of the family and of the Hispanic culture, but it could have gone a very different way.

Another note I want to tag on before I finish is while researching this article, I found this Wikipedia article called "Got Rice?" This phrase was coined by an Asian American youth in the 1990s, shortly after the "Got Milk?" campaign became so popular. The humor is derived from the fact that rice is considered a staple food of many Asian cultures and milk is not a traditional Asian food. The slogan is seen as an Asian American response to American advertising. It has come to be used as a symbol for the cohesiveness of Asian American cultural identity and pride.


  1. I had no idea about any of this. A wonderfully written and entertaining piece of information.

  2. Love this piece!

    And by the way, I've been meaning to tell you for a long time how much I like your work. Been visiting - some might call it lurking - for quite a while but finally got around to making a comment...some would call my previous lack of comments being lazy. I might agree. But no one asked me.

    You're finally on my blogroll (Sites Blog Harbor Recommends)...and I think we might both agree, having this knowledge will help you sleep better. :-)

  3. Thanks so much for the kind comments :) I really appreciate the feedback!

    blogharbor, I've also been somewhat of a lurker at your blog. I've now added it to my blogroll. I'm sure you'll sleep better, too ;)

  4. Hey Sara Duane,

    I just stopped back here for a midnight snack and noticed your blogroll comment...that's really kind of you - Thank You!

    Does this mean we both can now, finally, come out of the shadows and end this lurking madness? Hiding behind the shrubs over here - I think other blogs in the neighborhood have been talking.

    All the best,

  5. Good day,

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    Rusty Squire