So Bad It’s Good: How Oatly Capitalized on Negative Publicity

The Sharknado franchise prominently features rubber sharks, chainsaws, fake blood, and of course, tornados made of sharks. Every scene proves it to be one of the worst movies ever created, and yet, millions around the U.S have seen it countless times, and the franchise officially grossed 4.503 billion dollars. What about Sharknado keeps viewers captivated and coming back for more? The only way to explain is it’s so bad it’s good. The point of Sharknado is not to inspire greatness or fear. The point is to be bad enough to be amusing. This year Oatly paid five million dollars for an ad in the Super Bowl that was largely heralded as the worst Super Bowl ad of 2021. Some fans even said it made them not want to buy their oat milk.Why did Oatly spend so much money for a commercial that half the viewers could not stand? Oatly’s “Wow, No Cow!” ad combines simplicity, understated humor, and subtle product endorsement to create an ad that is infinitely more strategic than it seems.

The ad begins with the soft sound of rushing water and Oatly’s CEO looking up to a sky heavy with rain. As the words “Toni Petersson, CEO Oatly” appear on screen, keyboard music begins to play and Petersson sings, “It’s like milk but made for humans.” He repeats this line, and the camera slowly zooms out to show his maroon shirt, which reads, “No Artificial Badness.” When he starts in on his chorus of “Wow, wow, no cow. No, no, no,” it is revealed that he is playing the keyboard in the middle of an oat field with a carton of oat milk and a mostly full glass rested on the edge of his keyboard. The production is simplistic, to say the least. As he croons out the chorus a second time, an upbeat drum starts playing in the background, and the camera pans to show the entire field, which has a few trees dotting the edges of the screen and a sky full of dark clouds. Once more he sings, “Wow, wow, no cow,” and the screen fades to black. Although at first look it seems like an insanely simple ad for the Super Bowl, this simplistic ad represents much of what Oatly stands for and how they choose to portray themselves.

Oatly is a sustainability-based Swedish food company that primarily sells and manufactures oat milk and other dairy alternatives like Oatgurt or oat ice cream. In the early 90s, they decided to harness the nutritional power of oats to create a milk that bypassed cows in the production process. They simplify their production of milk by getting it directly from oats instead of feeding oats to cows and collecting the milk they process. The simplicity they strive for in food, they also carry into advertising.

The Wow No Cow ad is preceded by a long line of unconventional advertising by Oatly. Many of their billboards and marketing strategies are very forthright about what they are trying to do in the ad. One of their outdoor advertisements reads, “We made this ad look like street art so you would like it better than if it was just an ad.” Another jokes, “You actually read this? Total success.” This unconventional strategy differs greatly from the typical Super Bowl ad, so predictably it received a lot of backlash when it was aired during the 2021 Super Bowl.

When Oatly made their Super Bowl debut in an oat field with their singing CEO, negative responses poured in from across the country. According to , the Washington Post published “This year’s jankiest ad came from Oatly, a company that is very good at making oat milk and very bad at making commercials,” and People.com editor Jason Duaine Hahn wrote, “The ad was the center of debate on Twitter, with people calling it ‘’ and ‘.’ ” However, not all responses were negative. Before the Super Bowl even ended, watchers with a wide range of opinions on the ad took to the internet to express their opinions. While said, “The oatly commercial said “we have enough money for the ad space and that’s it,” American actress Fortune Feimster, , seemed to enjoy it and posted, “A real missed opportunity not having the CEO of Oatly performing during halftime.” The saying all publicity is good publicity seemed to work well for Oatly. Even though some of it was negative, thousands of social media posts talking about Oatly helped them become a household name.

Although fans had mixed opinions, Oatly seemed generally unapologetic in their stance on the ad. Their chief creative officer, , admitted, “You can look at it and say ‘that might be the stupidest use of ad space on the Super Bowl ever. The best approach is just to put something out there that feels real and then let them make their judgment.” Despite Oatly’s confidence in their commercial, people’s responses were very controversial. While some wanted to see Oatly’s message performed on a bigger platform, others thought it was a waste of advertising time. Viewers varied reactions indicate that Oatly did not use traditional marketing methods in creating their ad.

While many Super Bowl ads employ logic, emotion, or celebrities to get their viewer’s attention, Oatly took a different approach. Instead of using logos, pathos, and ethos, to sell their product, they used their CEO to say exactly what they wanted in the fewest words possible. In the People.com post referenced earlier, Jason Hahn provided some insight on why the ad is so appealing. “On a night known for star-studded commercials, Oatly's ad stood out because it featured its CEO Toni Petersson sitting in front of a piano in the middle of a field — and that's it.” This uncommon approach immediately draws you in and makes you want to listen to what they have to say.

Although the ad only has two sentences repeated over and over, the catchy tune and rhythm leave them permanently engraved in your subconscious. wrote on republicworld.com, “The Oatly commercial caught everybody off-guard with its weird premise and made sure to stick like glue in everybody’s head with its catchy tune and simple lyrics that went, “Wow Wow No Cow.” It’s hard to enjoy your usual creamy white beverage when an ad specifically targeting the negative aspects of cow’s milk is playing on repeat in your head. Capitol Hill Correspondent, Garret Hake, seemed to agree in his tweet, “It seems the ad exactly achieved its purpose.” If Oatly’s purpose was to create a memorable jingle persuading listeners to drink oat milk, I would say it did.

In addition to subtly pushing the point that oat milk is better for us and the environment, the “Wow, No Cow” ad appealed to humor to get a response. Like Sharknado, they utilized purposefully under budget storytelling to create a comic effect. When Oatly sent their openly amateur CEO into an Oat field to sing an advertisement, they weren’t going for serious, and the ad portrayed that. Oatly’s understated humor differed from the typical jokey humor that pervades advertising, so there was no surprise when not everyone liked their commercial. Although Oatly’s ad was unconventional, what really made the, stand out was their response to the backlash it received.

The way they addressed the negative responses to their ad corresponded with their open self-deprecating humor. In a brilliant marketing maneuver, Oatly decided to side with the people who didn’t like their ad while still standing by their product and harnessing free advertising to top it all off. They did this in an that poked fun at themselves by announcing they were giving away free t-shirts that read “I Totally Hated That Oatly Commercial.”

“Hey US! Were you just watching the big game when out of nowhere our CEO Toni appeared in an oat field and provided you with his very own synth-accompanied musical stylings about Oatly? If so, we can’t give you back those 30 seconds but we can give you this free t-shirt that will let the world know where you stand on our attempt to promote Toni’s singing skills to a wider audience, which you can wear proudly knowing we will not be offended in any way, since we believe that having different opinions is what moves society forward and besides, walking around with our CEO plastered across your chest might spark some deep conversations about the benefits of a drink made directly from oats that skipped the cow altogether, or how switching from dairy to oat-milk can save the planet a ridiculous amount of CO2e, so yeah, we are cool with it.” This cheeky response and preprinted t-shirt give a little insight into what Oatly was trying to do with their ad. If they had not meant for their commercial to be controversial, they probably would not have preemptively made t-shirts talking about how bad it was.

The strategy of Oatly’s “Wow, No Cow” ad far exceeds an under budget way to sell oat milk. Although their advertising is unconventional, it is specifically designed to go against the grain. Instead of using flashy celebrities or surprise to sell their product, Oatly’s simplicity causes it to stand out. While at first glance an off-key singing in an oat field does not seem like a genius marketing strategy, their lack of overproduction and willingness to look ridiculous comes across as genuine and appealing. In addition to capitalizing on a strategic source of advertising, Oatly harnessed social media to become the most talked about ad of the Super Bowl. Because of its audacious simplicity, it was bound to be controversial. Whether positive or negative, everyone had something to say about the oat milk ad, and every tweet and post skyrocketed Oatly’s publicity further. By creating an unusual commercial to grab viewers’ attention with humor and simplicity, crafted an unforgettable ad impossible to stop singing.

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