The Aubrey Plaza Ads About Fictitious Wood Milk Might Be Illegal

You know oat milk and hemp milk — now, meet Wood Milk. If you haven't heard of it before, "Wood Milk" has been the subject of an ad campaign starring celebrity actress Aubrey Plaza, first airing on April 20. It has an official Instagram account, and you can even order a witty graphic tee shirt on the Wood Milk website for $20. You cannot, however, purchase any actual milk. Why? Because Wood Milk doesn't exist. It's a spoof product created by the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program, aka MilkPEP. In the ads, Plaza's fictional company "Wood Milk" is peddling milk made out of trees. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), it's a jab at plant milk brands, going so far as using the milk-mustache symbol of the "Got Milk?" ads of the late-90s to early-2000s.

In an official complaint filed to the inspector general of the USDA, the PCRM argues that "Federal law prohibits the fluid milk checkoff from engaging in 'any advertising that may be ... disparaging to another agricultural commodity.'" According to PCRM, the MilkPEP ad campaign isn't just a little tongue-in-cheek but is unlawful, and it requests that the ads be removed from the air. Still, ads poke fun at competitors all the time, so what's the big deal with Wood Milk? The real problem here comes from the fact that this ad campaign was funded by none other than the USDA itself.

USDA-funded ads can't exhibit preferences about types of milk

MilkPEP is funded by the checkoff program, a USDA sector created to promote the dairy industry (and, notably, funded by industry stakeholders). In order for a MilkPEP ad to run, it must first be okayed by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service — which is why the PCRM wants to know why the Wood Milk campaign was approved, to begin with.

On the flip side, some consumers might argue that slander wasn't the main message of the spoof campaign. In one Wood Milk ad, Plaza is depicted walking through a forest ("Wood Milk Orchards"), spouting lines like, "We grow our trees the old-fashioned way: Right out of the ground." 

Indeed, Plaza is known for a career of deadpan humor with roles like the forever-unimpressed Julie in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" or as a stony, impassive "Monsters University" sorority sister. The ad casting was surely deliberate. Could it be viewed as an intentionally over-the-top pastiche of niche "artisanal" food products and greenwashing, more a comedic device than a dig at the plant-based milk industry specifically? 

Still, as the PCRM points out in the complaint, "These prohibitions arise out of the USDA's statutory duty to 'foster and assist in the development of new or expanded markets' of all 'agricultural products,' not just a few for which the agency administers a commodity checkoff on behalf of a particular industry." The preservation of an even market playing field must be considered.