Got ELM? - COM 471 Persuasion Paper on Goodby Silverstein & Partners
COM 471 Paper: Persuasion (Final Revision)
Mark Twain once said, "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of
advertising." Similarly, the San Francisco-based advertising agency, Goodby, Silverstein &
Partners (GS&P), have supercharged ordinary milk into "one of the best-known products on the
planet." Their tagline, “got milk?” has become a part of pop culture. In order to learn how such a
highly challenged, tiny product could overcome GS&P’s "calcium competition," (Jurzynski, M.,
personal communication, November 30, 2005) this paper integrates extensive research, persuasive
theory, and critical thinking to explore the persuasion effects of the “got milk?” campaign.
After providing an overview of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), I will use the
ELM as a theoretical lens to examine the various components of the “got milk?” campaign - the
campaign issues, rationale, persuasion strategies, and its relative success. This is followed by an
in-depth analysis of whether or not the ELM theory is functional in practical circumstances, using
evidence drawn from email correspondence, actual “got milk?” advertisements, published reviews,
and multiple textbook reference sources. Finally, we will discuss how the ELM might increase the
success of the “got milk?” campaign, while considering possible additions besides the ELM. To
get a better understanding of the campaign, we need to begin with the basics of the ELM.
Developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, the ELM provides a theoretical
framework for understanding and integrating diverse findings from academic research in
persuasion. This model seeks to explain how persuasive messages work to change the receiver’s
attitude. The ELM states that under different conditions, receivers vary the degree to which they
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are likely to engage in elaboration of the information relevant to the persuasive issue. The ELM
argues that motivation and processing ability determine attitude change, which occurs utilizing
one of two routes: the central route or the peripheral route.
The central route requires conscious contemplation and logical analysis (cognitive
elaboration) of the presented issues. This occurs when people are motivated (care enough) and
able to think carefully (when no distractions interfere with their evaluation) about a message. As
we carefully consider and elaborate upon the speaker’s arguments, this leads to relatively enduring
attitude change, which is more predictive of future behavior (conversion). The peripheral route
requires little mental effort. This low involvement processing occurs by default as people are often
either unmotivated (e.g. topic has low personal relevance), or unable to think (e.g. distracted and
cannot concentrate) about the merits of a message. Factors unrelated to the perceived merits of the
message, such as surface characteristics and persuasion cues (e.g. source attractiveness or
expertise), induce temporary attitude change (compliance) without deep consideration. Yet, these
two routes are not mutually exclusive even if we favor one route over the other, as parallel
processing often occurs (Brown, 2006).
The key variable in this process is involvement - the extent to which an individual is
willing and able to ‘think’ about the position advocated and its supporting materials. High
involvement initiates central route processing, while low involvement drives peripheral route
processing. When the message is relevant, and people are motivated and able to think about the
content of the message, elaboration is high. Elaboration means engaging in issue-relevant
thinking, and involves cognitive processes such as evaluation, recall, critical judgment, and
inferential judgment. When elaboration is high, people are likely to utilize the central route.
Conversely, the peripheral route is the likely result of low elaboration. Persuasion, however, also
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occurs with low elaboration. In this case, the receiver is not guided by the assessment of the
message, as in the case of the central route, but the receiver decides to follow a shortcut or a
decision-rule (simple heuristic), or peripheral cues derived from the persuasion situation. Petty and
Cacioppo (1984) found that argument quality guides persuasion when involvement is high, while
argument quantity guides persuasion when involvement is low. They also found that distraction
blocks central route processing and induces peripheral processing.
The ELM accounts for the differences in the persuasive impact produced by arguments that
contain ample information and cogent reasons compared to messages that rely on simplistic
associations of negative and positive attributes to some object, action or scenario. The ELM is a
fairly accurate model of how attitude changes are achieved and the difficulty in producing a major,
long-term attitude change. While it does not predict every single situation, the guidelines set forth
in the ELM provide an integrative framework to the field of persuasion (Brown, 2006). In this
case, it is illustrated by the "got milk?" campaign.
Milk advertising has never been easy. According to GS&P’s Ms. Jurzynski, the challenges
were numerous since the beginning. Milk, a generic commodity in “boring, old square cartons,”
had short shelf life, an unbranded medicinal image, with neither trendy packaging nor new flavors.
Facing a broad and competitive range of alternate beverages vying for their increasingly choosy
customers, it was a huge uphill struggle for the dairy industry, such that they spend $180 million
annually to “stop the hemorrhaging.” The recent emergence of “calcium competition breathing
down [their] necks,” and “everything from OJ to Mac & Cheese to bread to vitamin water touting
‘now with added calcium – as much as a glass of milk!’” has shattered milk’s monopoly as the
only source of calcium for people. Today’s surfeit of aggressively marketed and healthy-sounding
products such as soy milk and low-carbohydrate drinks exacerbated the existing problems.
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Inflation and declining sales further eroded their budget. Even Governor Schwarzenegger said,
“Milk is for babies. When you grow up you drink beer!”
Concerned that “everyone thinks they know everything about milk,” GS&P had to “turn
advertising inside out,” and “brainstorm the concept from inception,” evolving "got milk?" into a
comprehensive and carefully integrated marketing campaign. “Got milk?” is now known for its
print ads with celebrities sporting Milk Mustaches and humorous TV commercials. Public
relations moved from being an afterthought to the forefront and became part of “creative
concepting” to “make this news to consumers." According to Ms. Jurzynski, GS&P’s goal was to
"get the message out there in a bigger way that will resonate with [their] audience." Aiming for
long-term conversion, GS&P seem to be targeting the ELM’s central route.
Analysis of the "got milk?" campaign ads, the information GS&P sent, and input from its
architect, Jeff Manning, also the executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, shows
that this campaign is tackling both routes of the ELM. GS&P’s highly publicized Milk Mustache
ads, frequently found while mindlessly flipping magazines, rely on associations with attractive
celebrities, and thus use the peripheral route. On the other hand, their interactive website with
activities and spots, and Jeff Manning’s claim that GS&P has “utmost respect for [viewers’]
intelligence” and that ads should “touch people intellectually and emotionally,” focus more on the
central route to persuade us to buy milk. Their success in “turn[ing] advertising into breaking
news,” from Good Morning America to CNN Headline News to ABC World News, gives
elaboration and emphasis to their campaign, and we tune in to such sensible news via the central
route. According to correspondence with GS&P’s Ms. Jurzynski, “the results have been absolutely
incredible.” Their website traffic has increased 15 fold, and the “press has run nationally and
internationally reaching 132 million + people.” Clearly, their campaign is a resounding success.
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The ELM postulates that a person’s motivation and ability to process the message
determines which route is used. The more motivation and ability a person has, the more likely they
process the message centrally (thoughtful consideration). As ‘cognitive misers’, people are neither
motivated nor able to process everything they encounter (Brown, 2006). Thus, peripheral
processing occurs for most ads, even the Milk Mustache ones, due to relatively low relevance and
issue-relevant thinking. The source credibility by associating milk with admirable and popular
celebrities provides peripheral cues that allow people to adopt a position towards the product
without any extensive cognitive work, regardless of argument quality. An attractive and reliable-
looking spokesperson helps to bring about the positive attitude change that GS&P hopes for. The
simple presentation, clear ad layout and consistent "got milk?" tagline enhance the ease by which
the Milk Mustache ads register peripherally as an attractive source - one of the most effective
ways the advertisers use to draw viewers’ attention. While the resulting attitude change is
temporary, it can be extended by the message repeated over time, enabling a more lasting change.
In addition, the peripheral route does not require strong evidence or convincing, quality arguments
or an objective audience as in the central route, which risks alienating discerning viewers, possibly
resulting in the opposite outcome. This boomerang effect means that the receiver using the central
route might reject the message and form negative thoughts and feelings about the message, thus
failing to be persuaded. Nevertheless, even the most powerful peripheral cues do not have
permanent effects, and so arises the need for elaboration via the central route (Griffin, 2006).
GS&P targets the central route with their www.gotmilk.com interactive website, which is
full of fun activities and humorous 30-second spots, with the latest featuring athletes taking
“performance enhancers from refrigerated lockers” (milk!) to “rebuild muscles” and “maintain
bone strength.” GS&P knows that a good way to motivate people to take the central route is to
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make the message personally relevant to them. Consequently, with higher relevance for interested
users, the audience is involved in issue-relevant thinking, and more motivated to process the
information. They voluntarily explore the website and actively experiment with milk recipes and
play the "got milk?" games. Multiple independent sources, such as The New York Times, The Wall
Street Journal, Inside Edition and ESPN Hollywood, presented "got milk?" favorably, increasing
our motivation and interest to scrutinize these highly acclaimed, ubiquitous ads. On the whole,
these interacting factors combine to amass more thoughtful elaboration and consideration of the
message via the central route, resulting in stronger, more enduring attitude change that is more
resistant to counter persuasion by the milk industry’s competitors. Yet the constant repetition and
countless imitations, even rip-offs (e.g. Got Beer?) of the "got milk?" slogan has increased
publicity so much that, regardless of route use, many will develop a positive attitude towards milk.
Drawing from the various research sources, it is evident that GS&P has outdone the
competition by incorporating the ELM in their “creative concepting.” Innovatively fusing the
audience’s elaboration level through a versatile and varied arsenal of persuasive tactics, from the
simple Milk Mustache ads to the online hands-on, thought-provoking activities, the impact is
persuasive and pervasive. GS&P representative Debbie Lee provided documentation of a national
awareness of over 90%, an unaided tagline recall at 50.4% correct (triple that of Coke or
Budweiser!), and actual sales constantly exceeding projected sales. Most of all, milk’s traditional
image has skyrocketed to iconic status, as a “nutritional powerhouse” worth over $20 billion at
retail (Lee, D., personal communication, November 14, 2005). A winner of every major
advertising award, including Clios, Effies and SF Show Awards, "got milk?" was named one of
the best ad campaigns of all time, as it stabilized milk sales and made an “indelible mark on
American pop culture” (Lee, D., personal communication, November 14, 2005). GS&P
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transformed "got milk?" into the most popular and highly leveraged tagline in advertising history,
with its own gear line, and Jeff Manning’s 197-page "got milk? the book" that describes how their
multimillion-dollar advertising campaign and website “weave together” to save milk for good.
The ELM offers insight into the dynamics of attitude change, and has proven to be a useful
and appropriate tool in helping us analyze and predict how variables might affect persuasion in
real-world circumstances like the milk industry. Researchers Green and Brock (2005) reported that
a critical issue for understanding persuasion was whether attitude change was a result of the
central or peripheral route. However, real-world predictions are often more complex than
laboratory tests which extrapolate from simple and clear-cut manipulations. Although the ELM
explains both routes of persuasion and the ideal circumstances for each, we are seldom at either
extreme. Therefore, it is best represented as a continuum rather than a dichotomy (Brown, 2006).
With such advertising potential and successful route-specific persuasive strategies
enhanced by their “creative concepting,” Goodby, Silverstein & Partners have shown themselves
to be master persuaders. They have redefined the meaning of success by “what can be,” instead of
“what is” (Lee, D., personal communication, November 14, 2005). Personally influenced by their
advertising, and eager to toast their healthy and milky future, I wonder what is in my refrigerator,
and if I… got milk?
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Additional References (beyond our class textbooks)
Brown, J. (2006). Social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (Eds.). (2005). Persuasion: psychological insights and perspectives.
California: Sage Publications.
Griffin, E. (2006). A first look at communication theory. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Jesaitis, C. (2003). Subliminal advertising reexamined through the elaboration likelihood model
and an individual difference approach. Thesis (B.A.): Whitman College.
Jurzynski, M. (2005). Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. (personal communication, November 30).
Lee, D. (2005). Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. (personal communication, November 19).
Lee, D. (2005). Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. (personal communication, November 14).
Public Relations Department. (2005). Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. (personal communication,
Public Relations Department. (2005). Got Milk?. (personal communication, November 7).
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