'Milk' is That Thing's middle name Dairy diary: A desire by milk producers to turn young children into lifelong customers evolves into an advertising campaign based on That Milk Thing, a fuzzy, blue, 7-foot whatchamacallit with high calcium content.

February 25, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- At dawn, freshly fallen snow blanketed the farmyard, a few miles and a world removed from the shining skyscrapers of this city on Lake Ontario.

Within two hours, the frozen February morning looked for all the world like a lazy day in June -- to the camera's eye, at least.

The snow had been shoveled, the dirt beneath plowed and raked, the edge of the barn's roof covered with half-rotting timber to hide the last hints of winter.

The sun peeked out from behind the clouds, the cameras rolled, the director called "Action!"

Three black-and-white dairy cows nibbled on hay. And a 7-foot, furry blue creature sidled up to them, shook its considerable hips, twirled, pointed, stomped and rolled its head skyward.

This afternoon, millions of television viewers in the Mid-Atlantic region will see precisely 3 1/3 seconds of these farm antics when "That Milk Thing" debuts in the first 30-second commercial of a major advertising and marketing campaign meant to get kids to drink more milk.

Viewers will see an action-packed montage of a media star in the making: A newscast opening with more reported sightings of the wide-eyed creature with tufts of green hair and a smile that won't quit.

Milk Thing captured on a convenience store security camera, buying three gallons.

The 93-year-old customer confirming that the playful whatever-it-was indeed paid in nickels.

The bespectacled archaeologist in the lab, hypothesizing while pondering the mold of a size-28 sneaker print.

The school boy who filmed his chance encounter with That Milk Thing on a farm and wrote a book about it.

The spot appears seamless, fun, almost effortless, as any good ad should.

In reality, though, That Milk Thing's tortuous journey from conception to debut spanned 18 months.

It began with the first market research sessions 11 stories above Pratt Street in the ultra-modern offices of the mascot's creator, W. B. Doner & Co.

It ended after a frantic week of marathon sessions in the film editing room, composing and adding music and, finally, shipping tape to TV stations at Friday morning's deadline.

The oversized character plays the starring role in a campaign built mainly around two 30-second commercials.

(The second, to air by spring, is a much simpler production filmed at Flite Three Recordings LTD in Baltimore and patterned after the "Unsolved Mysteries" TV show.)

$4 million and many hours

In the end, the campaign will cost $4 million and require untold hours of labor in a far-flung effort reaching from Baltimore to Los Angeles; from Cambridge, Mass., to Nashville; from New York to Toronto.

Much more than the look of a cuddly mascot hangs in the balance.

For Doner and its client, the Middle Atlantic Milk Marketing Association, the stakes are enormous.

While young children have been deluged with ads for soft drinks, "sports drinks" and fruit drinks, milk marketing has focused mainly on older teens and adults.

As a result, the marketing association concludes, the industry has fallen far short of its potential to boost immediate sales and to convert impressionable youngsters into lifelong milk drinkers.

"We know that kids are the future of the franchise," said Richard Norton, the association's general manager. "But, I mean, you just can't pitch nutrition to kids.

"So we're taking it a step further. If you make it fun, if you make drinking milk the 'in' thing to do, that's what's going to get the job done."

It's uncharted territory for Doner and its 15-year client, the dairy group. The partnership has produced numerous successful, award-winning milk campaigns, featuring everyone from Cal ,X Ripken to quadruplets born in 1994 in Carroll County.

But the new campaign marks the first involving creation of a mascot, the first directly linking school marketing and high-profile advertising, the first to target such young children.

The campaign is to complement the nationwide "Got Milk?" ads launched by the association's parent organization, Dairy Management Inc., by filling a void in targeting young children and their parents.

Linked to free school meals

That market is a potential gold mine: Nationwide, the marketing association says, children 6 to 11 directly influence $400 billion // worth of purchasing decisions a year, $120 billion of that for food and beverages.

The strategy also places heavy emphasis on free school meal programs, with more than 100 Milk Thing visits to schools planned this year.

Too often, schools can't give away free meals, particularly in poor, inner-city schools, because of the stigma associated with them.

That costs milk producers dearly, as children who pass on the meals also never consume the milk that the federal government requires be served with food in the school programs it finances.

This is the stuff of an ad campaign's inception.

At Doner, executives and copywriters and artists immersed themselves in such detailed analysis, months before work on the ads would begin.

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