Blocks of cheese
May 12, 2017

The Slippery Slope of Absence Claim Marketing

 |  By: Dairy Talk

By Jim Dickrell

Absence-claim marketing, where companies proclaim their products are free of this or that, is akin to negative political ads. They’re the lowest form of persuasion, most stoop to their lure, and in the end, everyone gets sullied.

The most recent absence claim ads, and perhaps the most egregious because they use and target young children, comes to the dairy industry from Arla Foods USA. In a 30-second commercial, seven-year old Leah describes what rBST is to her mind’s eye: A tall, scary monster with razor sharp teeth and fur so electric it will shock you if touched.

There are similar Arla ads for Xanthan gum in cream cheese and sorbic acid in cheese processing. The ads, created by Minneapolis-based ad agency Carmichael Lynch, were created by asking kids to visualize what rBST, xanthan and sorbic acid were to them. Then the creative ad people came up with animated 30-second spots to bring to life the kids’ imaginings. Arla’s tag line: “Only simple, naturally delicious ingredients a kid would recognize. No weird stuff.”

In a separate video describing how the ads were produced, the agency acknowledges: “Of course, [the kids] had no idea. But we took their answers and brought them to life.”

What?!? Arla is playing to the fears of kids who have no idea what they’re talking about, animates those fears and then targets other kids with these nightmares?  

One dairy mom called me and said the rBST ads scared the bejeebers out of her three young daughters, one as young as three, as they watched episodes of Peppa Pig. “Mom, does our cheese have rBST in it?” they asked. These ads, the mom told me, are “inherently wrong,” especially coming from a dairy farm cooperative which claims to be the fifth largest dairy company in the world with 12,500 dairy farmer owners.

Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications with the National Milk Producers Federation, says absence claim advertising is a kamikaze approach to marketing. Absence claim marketing can call into question the wholesomeness of an entire food group, never growing the category and simply moving sales around.  “When you take this type of approach, you sow confusion,” Galen says. “It’s a very toxic way to grow market share.”

I was going to ask Arla if they use calf rennin or bio-engineered chymosin as their cheese starter cultures. Or, if their farmers used prostaglandins, gonadotropin releasing hormones or even artificial insemination in their breeding programs. I wonder what kids would think of these scary-sounding words. One can only imaging the ads that could be created by anti-dairy and vegan groups if they employed the same tactics. But the Arla’s marketing department never returned my calls.

To its credit, Arla did run a disclaimer, albeit in small, translucent type, during the commercial: “Made with milk from cows not treated with rBST. No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows.” But I’m not sure a 5-year-old could understand that, either.

The irony in all of this is that virtually all major dairy processors in the Midwest will be rBST-free by the end of the year. Arla will soon be trying to grab market share from products that don’t exist—confusing kids, moms and the markets even more.