Today the process of acquiring milk, from the grocer’s or the supermarket, is fairly routine. Just as with any other food item, we take the requisite number of cartons from the shelf, place them in our shopping baskets and pay for them at the till – or self-service checkout, or whatever. But it wasn’t always thus.
Back in the day, long before global warming was a thing, we had electric vehicles aplenty delivering our daily milk ration to our doorsteps in the early mornings. That familiar clinking of glass bottles, of which we were vaguely aware as we rolled over in bed and contemplated the imminence of the alarm clock bursting, unwelcome, into action, meant the milkman had arrived. The challenge thereafter was to get up and take the bottles indoors before the sparrows, who seemingly anticipated the arrival of the milkman with almost clockwork precision, could descend upon them and peck through the flimsy foil lid to draw off the cream, which settled in the neck of the bottle.
Milk was good for you
We didn’t have much idea about macronutrients in the 1970s, but we knew that in some vague, indefinable way milk was good for you. Before semi-skimmed and skimmed arrived on the scene milk came in two variants – full fat and even fuller fat. The former we knew as silver top, the latter was called gold top – each identifiable, surprisingly enough, by the colour of the foil lid. The sparrows had a preference for gold, but were certainly not averse to silver if that was all that was on offer.
When the bottle was empty, we would wash it out and place it out onto the doorstep. When the milkman arrived the next morning, he would take the empties away on his milk cart after leaving that day’s fresh supply. Thus it was that the seventies wasn’t only ahead of its time in terms of electric transport, it also boasted its own slick recycling operation.
Drink it quick
But the sparrows weren’t the only ones with a penchant for stealing milk. After all, at least they were fluffy and cute. Not at all like the Humphreys, who were mysterious, even sinister, and so persistent in their nefarious endeavours that even a legendary world boxing champion was recruited by British commercial television to warn us of their evil intent.
Not that anybody ever actually saw a Humphrey. Their only visible manifestation was as a column of red and white striped drinking straws marching determinedly, if a little furtively, beside the chair, table or bed of the intended victim whose milk was about to be filched.
The message was spelled out starkly: “Drink it quick, Humphreys are slick!”
The Humphrey was in fact a mythical (and teasingly invisible) creature devised by John Webster of the Boase Massimi Pollitt advertising agency on behalf of Unigate, one of the biggest dairies bringing milk to the doorsteps of customers throughout the United Kingdom. Celebrities signed up by Unigate to bring home the message included Carry On stars Sid James and Barbara Windsor, comedians Benny Hill, Spike Milligan and Arthur Mullard, and of course US heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali.
The series of adverts was accompanied by a powerful merchandising campaign including mugs, straws and stickers – some of which can still be picked up today as collectors’ items.
It was, without doubt, one of the most innovative and frankly brilliant initiatives in the history of advertising, and benefited the entire milk industry as well as just Unigate.
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