Beef. It's What's For Dinner.
If that slogan sounds familiar to you, you're not alone. Eighty-eight percent of Americans instantly recognize it, making it one of the most iconic taglines in advertising history.
If you know that tagline and you were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, then the beef industry's marketing team is doing its job because you are the target market.
In fact, these marketers have been trying to persuade you to eat burgers and rib eyes since before you could drive.
The "Beef. It's What's For Dinner" campaign is funded by the Beef Checkoff program, which dictates that all producers selling cattle for any reason must pay $1 per head to support beef and veal promotion.
According to the program's website, "The Beef Checkoff was designed to increase consumer demand for beef and to create opportunities to enhance producer profitability."
Similar checkoff programs exist for other products, and the marketing money behind them has funded several other iconic taglines, including "Got Milk?," "Pork. The Other White Meat," and "The Incredible, Edible Egg."
Ranchers who want to opt out of Beef Checkoff, which was incorporated into the 1985 Farm Bill under the Beef Promotion and Research Act, have taken their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
But in 2005, the court ruled that marketing campaigns like "What's For Dinner" don't violate the ranchers' right to free speech.
In 2012, Beef Checkoff spent more than 40 percent of its budget — more than $18 million — on beef promotion.
Where's the beef?
The meat and poultry industry is the largest segment of U.S. agriculture, but studies show that Americans' meat consumption has been falling, and that makes millennials — a group that encompasses 80 million people — important.
"Beef consumption has been in decline for about 20 years," New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman wrote in 2012. "The drop in chicken is even more dramatic over the last five years or so; pork also has been steadily slipping for about five years."
The decline has been blamed on everything from the recession to rising meat costs, but people are also choosing to eat less meat for environmental and health reasons, as well as concerns about animal welfare.
The Vegetarian Resource group found that 42 percent of U.S. vegetarians are between the ages of 18 and 34, and Beef Magazine reports that 45 percent of millennials want to know how cattle are raised.
"Like no other generation before, millennials want to know about food production and latch on to causes and campaigns more quickly and loyally," reads an article in Beef Issues Quarterly. "As millennials embark on parenthood, their decisions will influence our industry's future consumers."
'Real' girls eat burgers
Meat — and not just beef — has been specifically marketed to millennials for more than a decade.
In 2003, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) launched its "Cool 2B Real" campaign, funded by Beef Checkoff.
The campaign's website, Cool2BReal.com, looked "like a cross between a Barbie fan page and a Taco Bell ad," according to Time magazine, and it was promoted in teen magazines like ElleGirl and on Radio Disney.
It featured beef-centric recipes and fitness tips, as well as games like Burger Boggle and polls with questions like, "What type of beef do you most like to eat with your friends?"
"We hope the 'Cool 2B Real' campaign helps girls make healthy decisions about food and exercise," Mary Young, the NCBA's executive director of nutrition, told Time. She said the organization was concerned about the rise in vegetarianism, which she referred to as one of teenage girls' "wacky eating behaviors."
The campaign targeted 8- to 12-year-old girls, or "tweens," a segment the NCBA considered a "solid investment."
"By presenting the facts about beef, we can influence girls' and their families' food choices now,” Barbara Selover, the NCBA's executive director of education, told AgriMarketing magazine. "We know that what these girls eat as tweens is what they will serve as mothers."
Cool2BReal.com has since transitioned to Zip4Tweens.com (now defunct). ZIP, which stands for zinc, iron and protein, communicates in a "still cool" format why these nutrients are important for tween girls' health.
But the beef industry isn't the only group striving for a market share of meat-eating millennials.
The Pork Checkoff program has its own tween-targeted website, Pork4Kids.com (now defunct).
The website, which encouraged visitors to "have a party for pork!," featured recipes like pork tenderloin lollipops, pig costume instructions and a cartoon starring Peggy Porkchop, a character who is searching for her place in the food pyramid.
With millennials poised to bypass baby boomers in buying power, the meat industry is working hard to convince millennials that meat isn't only nutritious, but also sustainable and that the industry is concerned about animal welfare.
The American Meat Institute (AMI) produces a series of "Meat MythCrusher" videos that address such "myths" as "Livestock are aware and afraid they are going to be slaughtered" and "Going meatless one day a week can have a significant environmental impact."
Last year, Pork Checkoff launched the "Pork. Be Inspired." campaign in an attempt to bolster consumer demand for the other white meat by rebranding pork cuts with more accessible terms like "New York pork chop."
Meanwhile, Beef Checkoff initiatives are targeting millennials who face the "4:30 p.m. dilemma," as research shows that only 50 percent know what they're having for dinner by that time.
"The 4:30-crunch is a major issue," said Michelle Peterson Murray, the NCBA's consumer influence leader. "We want them to feel like a hero for their families when choosing beef."
To help millennials pick beef, the NCBA's new marketing campaign includes posting beef preparation and recipes ads on Facebook and other social media sites.
"Through Beef Checkoff-funded programs, NCBA is spreading beef's message via smartphones, tablets, laptops and other cyber devices," Beef Magazine reads. "Murray says those are essentials to millennials, and even toddlers, most of whom develop a 'digital shadow' as early as two years of age."
There's even an entire section of Beef Checkoff's website dedicated to marketing beef to millennials.
How much business is there in promoting meat to U.S. consumers? Enough for a marketing firm to specialize in its promotion.
Midan Marketing, which has offices in Chicago and Statesville, North Carolina, focuses solely on the meat industry, and its clients include the NCBA, the National Pork Board, the American Lamb Board and Tyson Fresh Meats.
"We eat, we sleep, we think about meat all the time," said Damette Amstein, Midan's managing principal, in a video. "We're always trying to figure out how to help consumers get more interested in more meat in their diets and in their lifestyles."
The threat of Meatless Monday
While the meat industry pushes for U.S. consumers to eat more meat, the Meatless Monday campaign — which has been endorsed by doctors and environmentalists, as well celebrities like Paul McCartney — aims to reduce global meat consumption.
Campaign participants include companies, restaurants and schools, and the meat industry has been quick to criticize them.
When the Baltimore public school system adopted a Meatless Monday program in 2009, Janet Riley, the AMI's vice president of public affairs, appeared on Lou Dobb's show on CNN to chastise the school system for depriving students of protein.
AMI's CEO followed up with a public letter to Baltimore's City Schools CEO stating he was "disturbed" by the initiative.
So concerned was the industry about Meatless Monday that in 2013, the Animal Agricultural Alliance (AAA), a "coalition whose mission is to monitor activist groups and other detractor organizations," surveyed every participating school, restaurant and corporation listed on the Meatless Monday website to determine why they partake in the program.
"With the rise of the millennial generation, who at 80 million strong have become the fastest growing and most influential generation in the United States today, we all need to be reminded that communication on such important issues is key," writes Emily Meredith, the AAA's communications director, in regard to Meatless Monday.
And female millennials are the golden ticket because marketers have pegged them as the ones most influential in making family meal choices — hence the message of the "Cool 2B Real" campaign.
"'Real Girls' are busy and need lots of energy. You can get that extra energy and build muscle — which helps your metabolism — by eating regularly," the website read. "Enjoy a beef wrap for lunch or spaghetti and meatballs for dinner."
Click for photo credits
Photo (Got Milk? logo): Wikimedia Commons
Photo (Peggy Porkchop): pork4kids.com screen shot
Photo (millennials): beefretail.org screen shot
Photo (Meatless Monday): Andrew Allio/flickr