In the pantheon of fake national holidays, Cow Appreciation Day is a particularly ironic one. The brainchild of Chick-fil-A, the fast-food cult favorite, Tuesday’s holiday festivities are a marketing ploy meant to inspire consumers to celebrate cows by consuming chicken. But for dairy farmers and the dairy milk industry, the alternatives to cows have become the source of some beef.
Earlier this year, the market-research firm Nielsen released a consumer report showing the rocketing popularity of almond milk. “Almond milk is now America’s favorite milk substitute, boasting sales growth of 250 percent over the past five years,” the report noted. (Many attribute the rising consumption of almonds in all forms to its healthful properties and as a protein-rich ballast to vegan and vegetarian lifestyles.)
Despite this surge, almond milk only accounts for 5 percent of the total milk market, but the dairy milk industry is taking notice and aim—perhaps because during almond milk’s rise, as the Nielsen report noted, “the total milk market shrunk by more than $1 billion.” One recent ad campaign funded by the dairy industry that has appeared on television-streaming platforms makes an effort to challenge that narrative by portraying almond milk as, well, less than pure. The spelling bee-themed commercial features one girl misspelling lecithin, which is defined in the ad as “an emulsifier found in almond milk.” The second contestant wins by simply spelling “milk,” coyly defined as “like, from a cow.” (Curiously, as some critics have pointed out, lecithin is frequently present in dairy milk too.)
Another spot aims to signal the difference in protein content between what’s dubbed “real milk” and almond milk. These ads are just one component of the $50-million Milk Life campaign, which is funded by the Milk Processor Education Program, a group funded by milk processors. The campaign is meant to serve as the replacement for the comparatively passive Got Milk? slogan, which had been an advertising staple since the 1990s. (Neither dairy nor almond milk producers have seemed to venture into challenging the deleterious ecological impact of the other.)
According to the USDA, milk consumption has declined by 37 percent since the 1970s. Writing in Forbes, Hank Cardello outlined the flurry of missed opportunities for the dairy industry to involve itself in the products—such as Greek yogurt, meal-replacement shakes, protein drinks—that have served as substitutes for drinking milk, particularly among younger generations. “Milk producers also failed to put milk in packages pleasing to on-the-go consumers,” Cardello noted. “In fact, it took them decades to redesign and move away from those messy gable-topped cartons. Shapely one-serving milk bottles that consumers can easily pick up at a convenience store and drink from on the run are a relatively new offering.”
Even if almond milk is just one in a line of beneficiaries from dairy milk’s decline, it seems revelatory that it has become the industry’s biggest target. That said, it shouldn’t be too difficult to demonize milk substitutes. Earlier this week, the world was introduced to pea milk.