By now, you have either seen, or at least heard about, Oatly’s first U.S. television commercial, a “shoddily produced spot,” in the company’s words, that features CEO Toni Petersson and an electric keyboard, in a field of oats that looks it could be the default wallpaper of a Dell computer you bought in 1998. Petersson, eyes closed in musical ecstasy, sings, “It’s like milk, but made for humans,” before launching into the chorus: “Wow/ wow/ no cow/ no, no, no.” It is not good. Charitably, we will say that it is Dylan-esque. It goes on for 30 seconds.
It was also, you should know, produced in 2014, and “ruled illegal” in Oatly’s native Sweden, in part because of the phrase “it’s like milk, but made for humans.” Running the ad now, Oatly says, is the company’s “way of saying hello to the millions of Americans that don’t know our brand just yet and may not realize that Oatly is an easy way to help take on the climate crisis.”
Oatly, being Oatly, anticipated that you might not enjoy Petersson’s musical stylings, which had apparently not gone over well in Finland. The company was already prepared with free T-shirts that said “I Totally Hated That Oatly Commercial.” They are infuriating. They are insipid. They are, as of this morning, obviously sold out.
When Oatly launched in this country in 2016, its cheeky self-awareness was, arguably, charming. Its ads offered meta-commentary on the nature of advertising (“They will stick an ad for oat milk anywhere these days;” “You actually read this? Total success.”), and even if they were trying too hard — Oatly has always been thirsty — they were easy to overlook because oat milk was a welcome addition to the pantheon of milk alternatives. When people tried it, they lost their minds.
Now, Oatly is everywhere, all the time, and its ubiquitous ads are no longer novel. They also do not reflect the company’s current multinational reality. Oatly signed a $200 million deal with Blackstone this summer and is now mulling over a potential $10 billion IPO. Perhaps in 2014, Oatly had no choice but to send its CEO and a keyboard to sit in a Swedish oat field after a gentle summer rain, but an Oatly ad produced in 2021 would more likely take place in a boardroom, or possibly in New Jersey.
This would all be much easier to handle if Oatly made a bad product, but the problem is, Oatly’s faux milk is good. In coffee, which is the most important place for milk, it is decadently creamy, even according to people who can, and do, consume actual cream. Oatly milk is just sweet enough, and in cereal, it is exceptional, probably because it is, in some sense, also made of cereal. (This could be redundant, but it is complementary.) It is better than cow milk — anything is better than cow milk — but even taken on its own terms, Oatly reminds me of the Swedish childhood I did not have.
Oatly knows all this! That is what is so infuriating. Oatly understands that its fake-quirky advertising is annoying. That its world-saving brand ethos — “We sell oatmilk [sic] but we’re really a sustainability company” — is transparently grandiose. That the very phrase “oat milk” is unpleasant to read or see. But Oatly remains an early standout in the alt-milk scene, and it is, in this opinion of this alt-milk drinker — good in spite of itself. Oatly is smugly and self-consciously “not good” at making ads, but the company is nevertheless extremely and authentically very good at milking oats.