WASHINGTON -- A new $52 million promotional campaign launched by the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board here is receiving a lot of attention on a national level, but local supermarkets have yet to see its effects.
Indeed, some supermarket buyers are unaware of the campaign that features women celebrities such as Joan Rivers sporting milk mustaches and touting the nutritional attributes of milk. Other buyers are not sure that milk consumption, which has been on a downward trend, can be increased through promotion.
The campaign received national exposure on a Feb. 22 segment of ABC's Prime Time Live, which used clips from the promotion while explaining that the nutrients in skim milk are the same as those in whole milk. The segment told viewers that 8 ounces of whole milk has the same amount of saturated fat as five strips of bacon or a Snickers bar. It featured doctors from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based here, warning adults to drink only skim or 1% milk because whole milk is so high in fat.
While the positive nutritional content of skim milk is one of the messages the milk board is trying to get across, Charlie Decker, executive director of the board, said he thinks the Prime Time segment was off base.
"We wouldn't go as far as they did to imply that whole milk is wrong for adults," he said. "There is a milk for everybody." He added that those not watching fat intake may wish to drink whole milk.
"They went too far when they compared whole milk with the empty calories of a Snickers bar," he said.
More controversy over milk has been generated by a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission filed Jan. 20 by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which
claims the new promotion is deceptive in implying calcium in milk can aid in preventing bone loss from osteoporosis.
"It gives women a false sense of security," said David B. Wasser, media director for the group. Osteoporosis usually is caused by calcium loss due to such factors as sodium intake or a sedentary lifestyle, said Wasser, and "calcium intake is good only up to a certain point" in warding off osteoporosis. Decker disputed the committee's claims, noting that the National Institutes of Health soon will be coming out with higher recommended daily allowances for calcium intake. And he said milk is the best source of calcium, which is metabolized more efficiently with the Vitamin D found in milk and not in most other sources.
The main thrust of "Milk -- What a Surprise!" is to counteract misinformation about milk, said Decker. "A lot of the reason for the per capita decline in milk consumption over the past 25 years is due to some myths and misunderstandings about milk," he said. The "single most important message" is that low-fat and fat-free milks have the same nutrients as whole milk, said Decker, and the campaign also will stress that adults do need milk and not all sources of calcium are equal.
The ultimate goal of the promotion, of course, will be to increase consumption of milk, which Decker said has been slipping at about 3% a year. However, Decker was reluctant to predict exactly what difference the program could make in milk sales.
"There is not a volumetric goal," he said. "We know eventually the increase in consumption will follow the education process. If we can turn around that 3% decline, that would be equal to $1 billion in sales."
Dairy buyers for supermarket chains are not so sure that milk consumption can be increased through education. "I think the impact on sales will be nominal, but if it brings attention to the dairy case, that's good," said Scott Rzesa, director of dairy, frozen food and meat for D'Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y. "There are a lot of offerings that people don't know are there," including skim milk with added nutrients and lactose-free milk.
Because the promotion started in February, "I would expect to see [any resulting sales growth] in the latter half of the year," added Rzesa. But even if sales don't increase, "anything that brings a smile to people's faces and makes them think is good."
A buyer for a major supermarket chain in the Midwest had much the same assessment of the milk board's campaign. "I think it is going to bring more awareness," he said. "By knowing the benefits of milk and seeing these people that we look up to, it may help sales," he said, adding that he doesn't, however, see "anything tremendous" in sales growth for milk, which he said has been declining in sales the past couple of years.
The majority of dairy buyers, however, were unaware of the new promotion, which was introduced via print advertisements in national magazines in February but as yet has featured no retail promotions. Bob Morris, dairy buyer for the Tampa division of Winn-Dixie Stores, said he had not heard of the "Milk -- What a Surprise!" advertising campaign. But, "the only thing that affects milk sales is price," Morris added. "Everybody knows the pluses and minuses of milk."
Jerry Wilkinson, dairy buyer for Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, had not seen the milk-mustache ad campaign but, like Morris, he felt that price is the most powerful sales tool in the milk category. "It is an item that is very price-conscious. It is footballed around a lot," he said.
Mark Aubin, dairy buyer for Pueblo Xtra International, Pompano Beach, Fla., said the only familiarity he had with the promotion was through the Prime Time news segment. He added, "You are starting to see some derogatory articles about milk and blockage of veins." As a result of that and other factors, "milk sales are declining, especially regular whole milk," although that still accounts for more than 50% of sales.
"On TV, they are beating up the milk industry because of fat content," said Mike Pitman, dairy buyer for Metro Markets Westown, Kettering, Ohio, who also had seen the Prime Time piece. Although the milk category is flat for Metro Markets, Pitman said 1% and skim milk are growing and 2% is the chain's top seller.
The milk campaign is scheduled to run through early 1996, at which time the milk processors board will vote on whether to continue it.