Aubrey Plaza's Milk Ad Has A New Critic

The Milk Wars have roped in the Department of Agriculture. Make it stop.

One little ad campaign featuring actress Aubrey Plaza has quickly become a symbol of the war between dairy and plant-based milk, and the battle has only escalated. One group wants the ad to be removed from circulation entirely, claiming it might have been illegal to release it in the first place.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit public health advocacy organization, recently filed a complaint with The United States Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General. The complaint alleges that the satirical campaign for fictitious milk featuring Plaza, released in April, was potentially unlawfully approved by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

You might be wondering why a 501(c)(3) is so riled about Plaza sipping on a tall glass of Wood Milk. Let's take a little journey through the contentious fight that rages on between plant-based milk producers and the dairy industry.

How the Milk Wars started 

Shots have been firing out for years between Team Cow and Team Plant, but which blow landed harder is still up for debate, and 2023 alone has seen some big ones. Immediately prior to the dairy milk industry enlisting the celebrity power of Aubrey Plaza, Silk, a plant-based brand, used a very specific lineup of celebrities for its own pointed campaign.

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In an emulation of the iconic "Got Milk?" ads of the '90s and '00s, Silk launched its own version of the milk mustache campaign for "the next generation of milk drinkers," showcasing the children of celebrities who had originally been part of the dairy ads. The implication: Young, cool people drink Silk Nextmilk, not animal products.

Then in April, America's Milk Companies released a satirical campaign in which Plaza acts as the spokesperson for a brand new milk product, Wood Milk (which of course does not exist). It's just like other plant-based milks, only in this case the "plant" from which it's derived is the gnarly bark of a tree trunk. And just in case any part of the tongue-in-cheek advertisement wasn't clear, Plaza drives home the message with the closing line, "Is Wood Milk real? Absolutely not. Only real milk is real."

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In response to that high-profile jab at the plant-based category, Oatly, a leading oat milk brand, called out the dairy industry by targeting the latter's negative impact on the environment. The "Climate Footprint Challenge" issued by Oatly offers to pay for Big Dairy's ad space, provided the dairy industry releases data about the environmental impact of its operations. The challenge was issued via full-page ads in major media outlets and with billboards in Times Square and on Hollywood Boulevard.

Dairy milk producers have also been active in attempting to block plant-based milk from being officially labeled as "milk" in any way. In the past, some groups have appealed to the FDA to prevent non-dairy products from being called "milk" in any fashion, preferring them to be labeled "beverages" (or "nut juice") to avoid confusion with dairy milk.

Why the Wood Milk campaign might be in trouble

Now that you know what drove plant-based milk supporters to the edge, it's time to address the cow in the room. The recent complaint filed by The Physicians Committee alleges that using a fictitious product named "Wood Milk" as a stand-in for plant-based milks clearly derides plant-based milks—something that the dairy industry isn't allowed to do.

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The complaint alleges that the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service approval of the advertisement with Plaza violates a statutory prohibition against advertising that is "false or misleading or disparaging to another agricultural commodity" and also violates a regulatory prohibition against "unfair or deceptive acts or practices with respect to the quality, value or use of any competing product."

The complaint also alleges that the Wood Milk campaign violates a federal law that says USDA milk advertising money can't be used to influence legislation or government action or policy. Thus, the Physician Committee requests that the USDA's Office of Inspector General recommend the "Wood Milk" ads stop airing and that corrective advertising be issued that explains the benefits of plant-based milks.

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"It is one thing for it to promote cow's milk," said Physicians Committee President Neal Barnard in a statement sent to The Takeout. "It is quite another thing to mock the products that many nonwhite Americans choose for health reasons."

The complaint appears to hinge upon the fact that Wood Milk, a fictitious product, is intended to disparage specific real products on the market, none of which are directly mentioned or depicted within the advertisement. In response, the dairy industry might point out the fact that only a nonexistent product is being mocked, and thus no competing product has been invoked whatsoever. Then the supporters of plant-based might respond that the Wood Milk joke only makes sense if we all understand which actual products it's satirizing. On and on. This has all the markers of a debate that could be fiercely argued by both sides for months, maybe years—as if they both don't already have enough ammunition against one another.

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