Maverick Life


The land of milk and yummy – in defence of plant-based milk

The land of milk and yummy – in defence of plant-based milk
Plant-based milk is here to stay in South Africa. Image: Austin Wilcox / Unsplash

‘The White Lotus’ star Aubrey Plaza’s recent commercial for the dairy industry is a reminder that these days making the case for dairy milk as the best and preferred consumer choice is not as easy as convincing a slate of celebrities to be photographed looking cool and sexy with a glass of white liquid.

This past week, the milk in the fancy coffee machine at the place where I work was changed to oat milk. I’d long had to run down to the ground floor to ask for a litre of Oatly to keep in the upstairs fridge if I wanted a cappuccino (yes, I know, a fortunate problem to have) and eventually it was decided that ours would be the first plant-based milk coffee machine in the building.

I think I might be the only vegan in that part of the university (although there are many more on campus), but no one resisted the decision and, a few days after the switch, I overheard a conversation at the coffee machine that went something like this: 

“I’m not a vegan, but I love the taste of coffee with oat milk.” 

 “Yes, and it doesn’t leave that film in your throat.”

 “Humans were never supposed to consume lactose as adults, you know.”

 “I know. Honestly, the milk industry has done an excellent marketing job.”

I promise I didn’t make this up. And it’s a conversation that I have had with many of my friends and family in a variety of ways over the past few years. But it always boils down to this: plenty of non-vegans – and even those who scoff at initiatives like Meatless Monday or Veganuary – just prefer their coffee with a dash of plant milk, mostly oat, but also soya or almond.

All of which makes the recent foray into product endorsement by American actor and producer Aubrey Plaza a gigantic misreading of the metaphorical global room. 

In case your social media algorithms have not yet dished it up, The White Lotus: Season 2 star has done a straight up, old-fashioned shilling job for Big Dairy as the face of a YouTube commercial for a “new” plant-based milk called Wood Milk. In the video, Plaza – clad in a lumberjack-style flannel shirt and going as “the co-founder” of the world’s “first and only milk made from wood” – poses the question: “Is Wood Milk real?” before stating: “Absolutely not. Only real milk is real.” 

No throwaway production, Plaza’s “drink wood milk” commercial is part of a YouTube channel for a fake plant-based milk that links to a fake brand website that links to a real milk-promoting website that links to the corporate funders of this outing, America’s Milk Processor Education Program. MilkPEP was created – its website says – in 1990 by an Act of Congress (note that: an Act of Congress!) “to increase dairy milk consumption through category-level consumer marketing”. The latter included the late-1990s Got Milk? campaign which cleverly employed Annie Leibovitz to photograph a raft of celebrities who made drinking milk seem cool, symbolised by the white moustache in each image.

Plaza – whose turn as the enigmatic, smart, sometimes sarcastic Harper Spiller in The White Lotus I loved – now joins a long line of milk endorsers like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Jennifer Aniston, Gisele Bündchen, Serena Williams, Mike Myers, Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg and Kate Moss. There’s nothing new about a high-profile person pretending they really, really love something for a buck. But there’s something different this time around – and it’s not just that Plaza’s moustache is not white but a very (pointed) sludgy brown. You see, along with a big helping of endorsement comes a milk-curdling serving of mockery – specifically of plant-based milks – that feels out of place, and very definitely out of time.

In the decade when the original Got Milk? campaign was born, dairy manufacturers were battling declining milk sales for two main reasons: the perception that milk was a child’s drink and Americans dining out more and therefore skipping the glass of milk that traditionally accompanied home-cooked meals. So, making a glass of milk seem the thing that sportspeople, actors, musicians and supermodels would naturally reach for when needing a nutritious drink was a matter of changing perceptions about who and where milk could be consumed.

These days, making the case for dairy milk as the best and preferred consumer choice is not as easy as convincing a slate of celebrities to be photographed looking cool and sexy with a glass of white liquid. Report after report highlights the negative environmental impact of dairy, including in terms of land and freshwater use and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as how it can affect our health. It is almost impossible to believe the bucolic scenes of happy cows that adorn the side of milk cartons when the reality is really closer to MILK, an award-winning short film which Ed Winters’s Surge Activism made in collaboration with British-Swedish animation studio Smash.

All of which means that, this time around, the creatives had to think hard about how to appeal to consumers and so conjured up an oppositional campaign against plant-based milk with a dead-panning Plaza at its helm. 

Maybe there are some people in the world for whom the fake start-up with its “hilarious” video clips is enough to convince them to stick with cow’s milk. But there is a big clue that the campaign face-planted right out of the gate: the comments on the YouTube video and, most tellingly, under Plaza’s Instagram post were turned off almost as rapidly as the campaign began in late April. Not to be deterred, social media commentators used the space underneath Plaza’s subsequent post to make known how they felt.

Was Plaza trying to claw back some credibility when she appeared at the recent Met Gala in a custom Stella McCartney? The fashion label’s Instagram account enthusiastically described Plaza’s gown as “cut from forest-friendly viscose jersey” and matched with a clutch “in cruelty-free materials and lead-free crystals, as well as gloves in a vegan alternative to animal leather”. 

Plant-based milk is here to stay and in South Africa you can choose from several local brands by genuine start-ups, including Oh Oat and Okja. But here’s the really good news: you can also make your own with some water, oats and a muslin cloth – or, as suggested here, a clean T-shirt! Homemade oat milk is cheap, it’s easy to make, it’s cruelty-free, and it takes about as long to get ready to use as an episode of Parks and Recreation, the first time I was genuinely, and uncomplicatedly, charmed by the Plaza scowl. DM/ML


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