The milkshake that brings all the boys

Traditionally picked up by tradies needing a convenient beverage to go with their meat pie, flavoured milk is now being marketed to all ‘blokes’ of decidedly blokeish affectation. Of all the flavoured milks, iced coffee is the most mannish, with the energy kick from the caffeine apparently enough to overcome the more likely sluggishness from downing 600ml of lactose.

Two companies, with various brands, are involved in this milk war. Parmalat’s Oak brand is sold with the tagline, ‘kill hungrythirsty dead’. Male thirst is presented as some uncontainable urge which must be killed dead, not merely quenched. The thirst is so powerful as to be emasculating: ‘Oak knows the answer even if you’re too weak to know the question’.

Lion’s Dare is marketed by an aggressive ‘voice in the head’ of its consumers, so perturbed as to be almost psychotic, again presenting itself as the answer for men when they are not feeling their usual, hypermasculine selves. ‘When your place is all over the head, a Dare fix’ll fix it’. Lion also owns the Farmers Union Ice Coffee brand in South Australia, which has been promoted with the tagline ‘Harden the FUIC up’. Big M in Victoria is known as ‘Fuel for blokes’. And the connection is not confined to Australia: in an ironic nod to the simplified masculinisation of the sector, Wing-Co in the UK is marketed as ‘The manly chocolate milk for men with added man’. The tagline on the mustachioed plastic bottle echoes the Oak brand with ‘Shoots down hunger, fast’.

Men have always been encouraged to eat the flesh of animals, ideally while flicking through a soft porn mag. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, published in the 1970s, Carol Adams in the USA documented advertising which showed ‘meat’ as sexualised, merging the consumption of animal flesh with the naked flesh of a human woman. Adams theorised the ‘absent referent’: the naked body of a woman standing in for the dead body of the animal so as to hide the death. In both the advertising itself and our horror at women being labelled as meat, the violent subjugation of the animal and its death are absent.

In today’s advertising of flavoured milk there are no subjugated bodies depicted. As one commenter on The Gruen Transfer’s message board says, it is ‘victimless’. Though it may not feature naked women, the marketing extends the concept of the absent referent, only instead of animal death it is the exploitation of the reproductive capacity of the female dairy cow that is being concealed. Is it surprising then, that such advertising is aimed solely at men?

Now Lion’s WA brand Masters is getting in on the action, though focusing on a more amiable ‘laddishness’ rather than the aggressiveness of its other brands. The new campaign featuring people cavorting on the beaches down south dressed in cow costumes is all about ‘fun’ and a ‘good-natured irreverence’. Advertising company Gatecrasher explicitly named the values of ‘laddish humour and mateship’ at the launch of the campaign. The female reproductive capacity which produces all this milk for laddish consumption has been swiftly obfuscated in a techni-coloured friesian onesie. The Masters cows are ‘just a bunch of guys doing what guys do together’. Consuming the output of the female reproductive system – is that what guys do together? It doesn’t quite fall in the self-cannibalising category of Suicide Food because this cast is male. Has anybody asked themselves where the milk actually comes from?

Cows are, as we should have learnt in primary school, necessarily female. In order to keep a cow lactating, she must give birth to a calf every year, which is then removed from her within 12 hours while the milk produced for her calf is instead diverted for human consumption. A recent report from Voiceless into Australia’s dairy industry reveals more. The endless cycle of impregnation, birth and lactation has more than halved the dairy cow’s lifespan to seven or eight years, during which she will repeat this process about five times. Overworked and stressed, she has been selectively bred to produce twice the amount of milk she did 50 years ago. This massive volume of milk production does not come without a personal cost: as most nutrients go into her milk, the cow herself is left undernourished and susceptible to disease. Lameness and mastitis are rife.

The dairy industry, unlike most animal exploitative industries, is perceived to be somehow benign, involving no harm but simply taking advantage of the ‘natural’ functions of the cow’s body. But her body is manipulated to violent extremes in order to create a product that was never intended for human consumption. This violence is masked by dairy advertising. Even trade terms are deceiving. Soy milk is accurately described as a plant milk, while cow’s milk is commonly known as ‘white milk’ in the industry, a convenient forgetting of its origins.

Processors and distributors such as Lion and Parmalat, alongside supermarket giants Wesfarmers and Woolworths, have collectively driven down the price of milk, putting further pressure on farmers who in turn place more pressure on their cows. According to Lion, ‘Flavoured milk is one of the most attractive segments in the dairy market’, and bound to be even more so with multi-million dollar exports to China earmarked with the recent free trade agreement.

Marketing of flavoured milks creates an absurd confusion of thirst with a crisis of masculinity. The solution to this emasculation is to inflict violence on female bodies. We’ve been brought up to believe that cow’s milk is the most innocuous of beverages. As adults, we can do better to remember where this milk actually comes from.

Take a look at a previous post, Big Mac strikes again, for more about the (dis)appearance of the absent referent.

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