Got PMS? Marketers Want You To Reach For The Milk Carton
The same folks who first asked Americans, "Got Milk?" in ads that have become part of popular culture are out with a new and far edgier pitch.
The question this time, put to stressed-out husbands and boyfriends is, "Are you a man living with PMS?"
The campaign from the California Milk Processor Board is mainly online and can be found at the cheeky URL: EverythingIDoIsWrong.org. The milk promoters' proposition this time around: "Milk can help reduce the symptoms of PMS," so stock up, henpecked males everywhere.
But can milk deliver? Let's look at the evidence.
The milk promoters cite a couple of scientific papers. One was a study published back in 1998, later reprised in a review article, that suggested PMS could be the result of a disruption in calcium regulation in the body and that treatment with calcium supplements could help.
The researchers found that 1,200 milligrams of calcium from supplements each day eventually reduced PMS symptoms by 48 percent. Women getting a placebo experienced a 30 percent reduction in symptoms, however.
The other paper, published in 2005, described a study that suggested consuming lots of calcium and vitamin D could help curb the development of PMS.
The findings from both studies led the milk group to say a diet high in calcium, including milk, could alleviate PMS symptoms. At the bottom of the new website you can find the claim boiled down to this: "Milk helps reduce a majority of women's symptoms after 3 months of taking 1,200 mg Calcium/day."
To vet it, I checked in with epidemiologist Elizabeth Bertone-Johnson at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Sciences. She's the lead author of the 2005 paper cited by the milk group. She gets no funding from the dairy industry. And she was never contacted by the milk board or ad agency about her work before the campaign launched, she says.
"The site overstates the prevalence" of the PMS problem, she says. Clinically significant symptoms — those severe enough to have a real negative effect on daily functioning — affect about 15 to 20 percent of menstruating women.
"It's true that the majority of menstruating women have symptoms of some sort," she says, "but if they're not having an effect on daily life then it's probably not severe enough to be considered clinical PMS."
OK, then what about the claim that milk can help relieve PMS symptoms? The data suggest that it can, but there are some caveats.
First, the early study that compared doses of calcium with a placebo relied on supplements — not milk. Bertone-Johnson's work on the risk of women being diagnosed with PMS looked at calcium and vitamin D from all sources.
Still, overall, there's evidence for the claim. "The data supporting this are reasonably strong," she says.
But if it were up to her, the milk message would get a tweak. "It's not necessarily milk across the board that would be beneficial," she says. Her work found a stronger benefit for low-fat and skim milk and not so much from whole milk, she says. The fat content may be part of the reason.
Fat and calories count, too. There's evidence that women with higher body mass indexes have a higher risk for developing PMS. And Bertone-Johnson says even skim milk is a significant source of calories, so moderation is important.
Milk is probably worth a try, but if a woman doesn't see results after a few months, she should probably try another option.
I asked Steve James, executive director for the California Milk Processor Board, about the evidence and the claims. "We think they're both valid scientific studies, and we stand by them," he says.
Now what about the reaction to the campaign? "It's a controversial and sensitive topic to begin with," James acknowledges, but the groups testing beforehand showed that "overwhelmingly men and women responded positively to the humor and the message."
The campaign will stay mostly on the Web, with a few ads on billboards in California, which is the territory the milk board covers. James also told us that there are some sponsorships with NPR member stations in California.
I did my own research in the NPR newsroom and got eye rolls and worse from all the women I asked to look at the site. "This is so wrong," said one female colleague. "Good lord!" another one gasped as it loaded on her screen.