Advertising in the age of Oatly

As the world battles a deadly pandemic, efforts to advertise oat milk seem far from newsworthy. And yet even in the devastated days of social distancing, such efforts matter, a lot. Especially to the Swedish brand, Oatly. 

In 2008, the company unveiled its ‘like milk, but made for humans’ campaign with furious backlash from the dairy industry. Two years later, the logline was banned trademark status for the reason that ‘consumers know cow’s milk is for calves’. 

But Oatly’s trouble relationship with the media – it’s supposed provocative agenda – continues to highlight critical issues over not only the role of advertisements, but also the boundaries governing them. At a time of increasing consumer interest in alt milk, are the supposed boundaries changing? And with greater consumer interest, are advertisers able to test the boundaries to an ever greater degree? 

The answers are being provided by arguably the world’s most controversial dairy free brand. Oatly recently announced plans to build a factory in Peterborough, East Anglia, which will open in 2023, promising to produce 450m litres of oat milk a year as well as creating an additional 200 jobs. 

Known for challenging the status quo, the company has faced backlash after challenging the EU over its promotion of milk in Swedish schools, winning a lawsuit from Sweden’s milk industry, and used the media to encourage consumers to think about the impact of their actions on the planet. But not everyone is convinced. Oatly’s tactics of “mind control” through a combination of hypnotic spirals, pendulums and subliminal messages have garnered significant disapproval from dairy farmers suffering from ever reducing demands. 

But Oatly has stuck to its guns, enjoying extreme growth thanks to a combination of tactical marketing and good timing, at a time when more people are choosing vegan or vegetarian alternatives. This explains the brand’s listing on the US stock market that could value the business at $10bn. Whilst Oatly’s approach has incensed some, it has delighted others. But is there a ‘fair’ way to challenge and change consumer habits? In a bitter battle that refuses to die, consumers must make a decision that will ultimately change lives. In the days of Oatly, complaints from dairy farmers risk becoming a regular feature of headline news. So are they sore losers, or treated sorely?

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Sam Gordon Webb

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July 2021
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