Off Brand

How Oatly Outsmarted the Super Bowl by Being as Annoying as Possible

The oat milk brand played meta-level advertising jujitsu

Ads are annoying. And every year a surprising number of Super Bowl ads are super-annoying. This weekend’s game was no exception, but one of the most annoying ads took things to a new level — by commoditizing everyone else’s annoyance.

The ad consists of Oatly CEO Toni Petersson playing a keyboard alone in a field, singing a ridiculous ditty about his company’s oat milk. “It’s like milk, but made for humans,” he sings. “Wow, wow, no cow.” Petersson has a kind of annoying alt-dad look, and an undeniably annoying singing voice. So the ad is very annoying, seeming to last much longer than its 30-second slot. And it was immediately one of the most-despised ads of the game, which is saying something.

Predictably, the Twitterati could not resist declaring their annoyance, thus obediently amplifying the ad’s impact in the process. But that was just the beginning of Oatly’s marketing jujitsu.

Clearly, the outpouring of haterade was anticipated because Oatly was ready with a surprising announcement via social media: It was giving away 500 T-shirts featuring a depiction of Petersson at his keyboard, over the words “I totally hated that Oatly commercial.” According to Insider, they were gone in five minutes.

Thus the real winner of hating on Oatly’s ad was… Oatly.

This is an impressive feat under any circumstance, but it’s a particularly cunning move for Oatly because it’s totally on-brand: Oatly itself is annoying — somehow healthy and a status symbol at the same time. Not only does it taste better than other milk substitutes (fans will tell you) it’s ethically superior too, requiring less water in its production process than almond milk does. Fans of alternative milk can’t seem to resist bringing up the subject with people who have zero interest in it, imbuing the subject with the kind of trendiness that, say, kale or quinoa have enjoyed in the past. (Yes, I realize some people really can’t have dairy, but that is not the entirety of Oatly’s market by a long shot. And in any case, it’s the talking about it that’s annoying.) Obviously, any Oatly superfan would love to own this T-shirt — and for you to ask them about it.

Maybe the most surprising thing about the spot itself is that it’s recycled: It was made back in 2014, according to Ad Age, and aired in Sweden. (Incredibly, the original version lasted an entire minute.) Apparently, Sweden’s dairy lobby sued to force the spot off the air — not because it was so annoying, but because dairy producers in general object to alt-milk products claiming to be “milk.”

Oatly’s timing looks pretty shrewd, as Ad Age notes it has only recently begun to crank up its distribution deals with Walmart and Kroger to push further into smaller markets. Its sales in the U.S. hit $200 million, and reportedly soared in 2020; a funding round this past July valued it at $2 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, and it’s considered a potential IPO candidate this year. That’s exactly the right moment for a brand to try to make its name more familiar to a wider audience.

Once they chose their path, the decision to double down and create 500 annoying brand evangelists was a natural; fans who couldn’t get a T-shirt could do their part by arguing that, actually, the spot is humble and charming! And in retrospect, it may have been the smartest ad of the night. How annoying is that?

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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