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UNDENIABLY WAIRY: How ‘big dairy’ infiltrated TikTok

With its 'Undeniably Dairy' campaign, the dairy lobby has been working overtime to thwart plant-based industry progress. Since the 1980s, the dairy industry has consistently gone after schools as one of its biggest audiences.

BJORN OLAFSSON: If you don’t know who “MrBeast” is, your kids almost certainly do. He’s massive with the Gen Z demographic, consistently trending on TikTok and YouTube, most famous for eye-grabbing philanthropic stunts or Squid Game recreations, sometimes reaching over a billion views a month. He’s also the latest influencer to collaborate with Undeniably Dairy, a massive, multiyear, marketing campaign designed to boost sagging sales of milk worldwide.

But this campaign isn’t a ‘how do you do fellow kids’ cringey faux pax. These videos are popular, cool even: Iced coffee hacks. Cooking videos. Overly complicated debates of how to butter bread. The videos have already reached hundreds of millions of users and show no signs of stopping. They tap into trends and challenges… Others tap into the specific mentality of students, claiming dairy can help “get your life together” before class or arguing that dairy can “reset” yourself after studying for high school tests, or energize you to stay up all night gaming…

The dairy industry (or their social media firm) is clearly tapping into something. But these TikToks paint a picture that doesn’t reflect reality… The claims of the campaign are diverse but tend to fall along three main categories: sustainability, health and ethics. Each of them approaches branding differently.

Undeniably Dairy greenwashes milk products as sustainable by cherry picking data points. For example, MrBeast claims that dairy products are made with 20 percent fewer emissions from 15 years ago (a technically correct fact by some measures), but follows this with “dairy is made with care for the planet.” That last bit is part of a huge push from the animal agriculture lobby to pivot towards a sustainable brand image…

TikTok is a perfect platform to disseminate misleadingly positive information about an industry. Each video is bite-size, often textually incapable of nuance, with a single centralized message. The For You page (TikTok’s closest approximation of a homepage) can create a fabricated image that, while true, doesn’t accurately reflect the state of the world more broadly. As data expert Kalev Leetaru put it succinctly, there exists “a lack of connection between social reality and physical reality.”

The Undeniably Dairy TikTok campaign uses this feature to its advantage. Sentient Media reviewed the top 50 #undeniablydairy TikToks that featured cows. Of them, 90 percent featured words or branding consistent with small family farms, including green pastures, family members working the fields, cows roaming free or friendly voiceovers from farmhands. This messaging implicitly suggests that the milk you’re likely to buy in a supermarket comes from a small, humane farm…

TikTok might be a new marketing avenue for the dairy industry, but the strategy of targeting children is nothing new. Since the 1980s, the dairy industry has consistently gone after schools as one of its biggest audiences, especially with its infamous “Got Milk?” campaign. Seemingly everyone, from Taylor Swift to Kermit the Frog, sported a white milk mustache or boasted a sugary chocolate milk campaign.

Despite these decades of efforts, milk drinking in the U.S. has been on a steady decline, though yogurt and cheese have made up for it some years. Plant-based milks like almond, soy and oat, on the other hand, have seen 23 percent market increases from 2015 to 2019. The plant-based milk industry is expected to reach 123 billion by the end of this decade.

The dairy lobby has been working overtime to thwart plant-based industry progress… Even though plant-based milk sales show no signs of slowing, there are signs that the Undeniably Dairy campaign is reaching its intended audiences. According to Edelman, an advertising firm that collaborates with the Undeniably Dairy campaign, they’ve achieved 72 million total video views. By the marketing firm’s metrics at least, the campaign was a success…

Clever advertising is nothing new for the dairy industry. What’s different about this campaign is that it feels less like a campaign than previous attempts, and that could make it more successful. While TikTok advertisers like Undeniably Dairy are required to be transparent about sponsorships, this campaign is purposefully less obvious than “Got Milk” was. There is no central slogan. There is no one specific target audience… the messaging and tone of the campaign is as varied as possible. Dairy is throwing milk at the wall and seeing what sticks.

The dairy industry benefits when consumers don’t investigate the impact behind their products. The average TikTok user may not even be aware that they are witnessing a coordinated social media campaign every time they open their “For You” page and see silly videos of milk chugging, cows lip-syncing to meme songs or #relatable content. And that’s by design. SOURCE…


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