People are still talking about the Oatly advert that ran during this year’s US Super Bowl.
If you’ve not seen it, it’s been labeled ‘the stupidest ad in Super Bowl history’. Basically, it features Oatly CEO Toni Petterson sitting in a field singing ‘wow, wow, no cow’.
Its effect at the Super Bowl was in large part due to it being so obviously cheap to make, odd, different, and out of place. As Katrina Fox put it in her vegan business newsletter: “The ad is basic, silly, funny, and rather weird. And that’s why it stands out.”
Oatly’s Super Bowl commercial
We’ve been talking about it since 2014, when the ad first broadcasted. Back then it was banned in Sweden after pressure from the milk lobby. That’s badly backfired.
The dairy lobby has given Oatly’s ad, like all banned artifacts, an allure and longevity it would never have had if they’d laughed and left it alone. Its censored nature is a talking point for American commentators coming across Oatly for the first time.
We’re still talking about it because Oatly is smart. The ad spot, which cost $5.5m for 30 seconds but almost nothing to make, was all part of a successfully orchestrated campaign to drive conversation about plant-based alternatives.
Anyone seeing the ad and visiting the website was met with the message ‘Yeah, that really was our CEO singing on the Superbowl’. Even before the ad ran they were offering ‘I hate the Oatly ad’ t-shirts on its website. They sold out in five minutes.
The genius of the advert is its placement, of course. As a plant-based milk company, if you wanted to get as many people as possible talking about your product, where would you put an ad? Which audience would be so enraged that they’ll be fired up for days?
Heavily meat-consuming American men?
Super Bowl advertising is forensically taken apart, with the nation’s media analysts watching the same ads and amplifying the best, the worst, and the weirdest across their channels.
So it gives plant-based brands the perfect opportunity to publicly confront and challenge the toxic masculinity found in the association of male past-times and animal oppression.
While it is an urban myth that Super Bowl Sunday leads to more calls to domestic violence hotlines than any other day of the year… It’s true that NFL teams have long had problems with players abusing their female partners. Each time this is publicized, calls to those hotlines do go up as other women recognize themselves as victims.
What is true about SuperBowl Sunday is that the price of chicken wings spikes. In 2020, a record 1.4 billion chicken wings were eaten on the day. This year, there were supply shortages.
“Football is great. Wings are great. But they’re even better together,” said US National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super, proudly pinning the sport to exploitation.
We know men eat 57 percent more ‘meat’ than women. We know that gender is the most significant factor in the exploitation of animals. Male-dominated sports events fuel that appetite. Two-thirds of Americans who eat chicken wings claim they like to do so while watching a major sporting event like the Super Bowl.
‘A win for the plant-based movement’
Dropping the Oatly ad in the middle of the Super Bowl, already famed for the dissection of its advertising content, was going to make plant-based milk an uproarious conversation winner.
Rightly so, Oatly has called it ‘a win for the plant-based movement’. And it has been much more successful than last year’s anti-vegan advert.
That ad was paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom. It attacked the Impossible Burger, arguing instead for the benefits of ‘real meat’. A group supposedly promoting ‘consumer freedom’ is nothing of the sort. It received initial funding from the tobacco industry back in the 70s. Since then, it has run multiple attack ads against The Humane Society and PETA.
As Michael Pollan said for The New York Times: “The Center for Consumer Freedom is … funded by Big Food to discredit those in the media and government who would do anything to interfere with the industry’s freedom to make as much money as possible selling us junk food.”
Oatly’s ‘Help Dad’ campaign
I do wonder if those angered by Oatly were bothered by last year’s pro-meat, junk food propaganda? Either way, Oatly’s Super Bowl strategy has worked. So they’ve continued with it in the new UK advertising campaign: Help Dad.
The campaign has stoked uproar here. It uses tongue-in-cheek scenarios in which children are embarrassed by their parents’ behavior. One catches his dad shamefully sneaking a glass of milk at night when dad has clearly promised to give up the hard white stuff.
Let me say it again, though: these ads are not meant to convince middle-aged men to drink plant milk. It’s disconcerting that Oatly’s critics don’t have the smarts to see that. The Help Dad website even says the campaign speaks directly to younger people, offering ‘the ultimate guide for helping the dad in your life stop eating like, um, a dad and make the switch from dairy to plant-based’.
The ads are targeted to reinforce plant-based lifestyles of young people while leveraging generational conflict to get the message amplified across less accessible channels. The campaign reiterates plant-based and climate emergency messages together, ensuring the association sticks.
To shift perceptions around new ideas, those new ideas need to be said and shared as much as possible. I’ll say it again: messages are more effective when repeated. So smart brands get people to repeat the message.
One of the most successful ways to do this is to get your opponent hot under the collar. Enter Joanna Blythman, bête noire of the vegan movement, calling the ads ‘nasty, sneering… and wrong about dairy‘.
Blythman is correct in saying that the ads play on stereotypes. She’s right that not all older people are environmentally unconscious and not all young people are eco-warriors. But it is true that older white men are the least likely to be vegan, least likely to choose plant-based options, and most likely to die of diet-related diseases such as heart disease and colon cancer.
A spokesperson from the Advertising Standards Authority said they received more than 140 complaints that the Help Dad campaign was ‘causing fear and distress, affecting people’s mental health, irresponsibly targeting vulnerable teenagers, and being offensive to dairy farmers’.
The range of this indignation is unsurprising. The Help Dad ads have been criticized for ageism, sexism, and mocking alcoholism. As the 46-year-old son of an alcoholic, I have absolutely no problem with this advert on those fronts. (If you know your TV history, you’ll know the advert in question owes far more to the old R Whites Secret Lemonade Drinker ad.)
More importantly, we should look to the psychology of behavior for why the ads elicit these responses. They suggest a triggered defense mechanism from people wanting to deflect from what’s being pointed out about their behaviors.
Rather than think about the messages—that we’re in a climate emergency; that bovine milk really is for baby cows—the offended seek other justifications for their offense. They do not want to admit that their behavior has health, environmental and ethical impacts. Instead, they attack the messengers.
This is particularly ironic for those claiming the ad mocks alcoholism. Deflection is typical of addicts who will not admit to their problematic and destructive behavior.
We know that meat and dairy consumption creates psychological tension. Meat and dairy consumers perform psychological gymnastics to live with this dilemma. Psychological scientist Steve Loughnan and his colleagues termed it the ‘meat paradox’ back in 2014. They say they love animals but eat meat; they don’t want to be seen as hypocrites, so find excuses. Ultimately, they shoot the messengers.
The ‘Dairy Dilemma’
Oatly’s ads suggest we need a new name. As well as the meat paradox there’s the ‘Dairy Dilemma‘ perhaps, which questions why people still drink baby bovine growth serum. (As Dr. Michael Klaper, who grew up on a dairy farm, famously put it in Cowspiracy: “The purpose of cow’s milk is to turn a 65-pound calf into a 700-pound cow as rapidly as possible. Cow’s milk is baby calf growth fluid.”)
Oatly is using psychology to its advantage. It’s also doing our movement a great service in raising awareness of the possibilities of a plant-based food system.
Like every organization in our capitalist system, Oatly has faced questions of where the money comes from to pay for its campaigns. But if we want to end animal exploitation and tackle the climate crisis, we need as many people as possible globally to be talking about plant-based alternatives.
Now, go talk to your dad about it.