Now Even Cellphones Have Milk Mustaches

IDEA SPOTTING: Lowe Helps Dairy Industry Push Branded Emoticon to Teens

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Add a curly bracket, {, to the classic smiley face, :-), and what do you get? The world's first branded emoticon, something that looks like :-{), intended to represent the milk industry's iconic milk mustache in the online lexicon.
"We want kids to use it as shorthand when talking about the campaign online," said Sal Taibi, president, Lowe, New York, agency for the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP. As part of a strategy to employ new media to connect with the group's target teen audience, he expects the emoticon to be used for text messages such as, "Did you see the new Beyonce :-{) ad?"

Youth-oriented tactics
The goal is to encourage teens to stick with drinking milk, a habit they give up as they grow older in favor of soft drinks or flavored waters. The effort to develop a branded emoticon follows a number of the milk board's youth-oriented tactics, such as MySpace pages of milk-mustache celebrities including David Beckham and the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison, Mr. Taibi said. Thanks in part to such efforts, sales increased 0.3% in 2005 and were up 1.2% in 2006, Mr. Taibi said, citing milk-volume statistics from the USDA.

Emoticons became popular in the early days of e-mail, when most messages were text-based and did not allow for facial or vocal expressions to convey nuance.

MilkPEP is seeding the online graphic in a recent Vince Carter YouTube video. It also uses the sign for its MySpace e-mail bulletins alerting milk-mustache fans about the next celebrity ad.

"We also use it in our website as a way for teens to communicate with us," he said. "In the next phase, we plan to use it as a way for kids to enter a contest. As it grows, we probably will use it as an ad."

Don't :'-) yet
But some academics point out it's a little premature for the Lowe folks to start :'-) (crying with joy).

S. Shyam Sundar, associate professor and co-director, Pennsylvania State University's Media Effects Research Laboratory and an expert in the study of the psychological aspects of communication technologies, said the milk-mustache emoticon is not obvious and will require a lot of marketing dollars for youth to recognize it. He also said that for :-{) to work, it will have to develop meaning as a verb, even trickier than the more common phenomenon of a brand name turning into a common noun, such as Kleenex.

"I don't see the milk mustache being a nonverbal signal for anything," he said. Unless, of course, kids themselves develop it into a code for something beyond dairy products. If the milk board is lucky, it could come to mean something that is good for you, he said. Or some youth might decide it's shorthand for something such as being homebound, stuck drinking mother's milk or not having very much fun at all, he said. "It's not in the control of the ad agency."
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