Oatly guilty of over-egging the pudding

Oatly has come in for criticism after having an advertising campaign banned in the UK, with the dairy-free company judged to have made “misleading” environmental claims. Andy Coyne argues the brickbats aimed at Oatly are over-done but says the Swedish group needs to be more careful in its marketing.

Some observers have claimed Oatly was guilty of “greenwashing” in a recent UK marketing campaign, which has been banned by the country’s advertising watchdog.

Those accusations are a little harsh.

Earlier this month, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) judged the Sweden-based alternative-dairy made “misleading” environmental claims in a series of adverts last year.

The ASA received 109 complaints from members of the public and the campaign group A Greener World and it concluded a number of claims made in the ads could not be substantiated.

However, the claims hardly amounted to greenwash – a form of marketing spin in which green credentials are overstated to suggest an organisation’s products, aims and policies are environmentally-friendly.

As a dairy-alternative business, Oatly’s commitment to the planet stands up to examination.

What it was guilty of in this instance was of trying too hard to make its case.

In TV ads, Oatly said its products generate 73% less carbon dioxide than conventional milk. Posts on Twitter and on Facebook claimed “the dairy and meat industries emit more CO2e than all the world’s planes, trains, cars, boats etc., combined”.

Meanwhile, a newspaper advert from Oatly said: “Today, more than 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases are generated by the food industry, and meat and dairy account for more than half of that.” In a second newspaper ad, Oatly used text that stated: “Climate experts say cutting dairy and meat products from our diets is the single biggest lifestyle change we can make to reduce our environmental impact” and “If everyone in the world adopted a vegan diet, it would reduce food’s annual greenhouse emissions by 6.6bn metric tons (a 49% reduction).”

Upholding the complaints, the ASA rejected the CO2 claims because they were based on the opinion of one climate expert. The regulator said the transport claims “overstated” the emissions of the meat and dairy industry because Oatly did not consider emissions covering the full life cycle of transport, only emissions when a vehicle is driven.

The ASA said: “We concluded that because the evidence was not sufficient to support the claim as consumers would understand it, the ads were misleading.”

An Oatly spokesperson admitted to The Guardian newspaper “we could have been clearer” in making the points it did.

Arguably, the lesson here is about tone just as much as it is about content.

Why did Oatly – and its advertising agency – take such a combative approach?

Given vegan consumers are converted to the cause anyway, it must be assumed the adverts were targeting flexitarians.

Many of those use both dairy milk and oat milk products, preferring, for example, one for tea and the other in coffee.

Do they really need to be lectured about what a great thing oat milk is while suggesting cow’s milk is the devil incarnate (I exaggerate for effect)?

Surely the product should speak for itself and consumers shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into its purchase?

That’s not to say companies such as Oatly shouldn’t highlight their green credentials but they need to understand sometimes the rapier is more effective than the broadsword.

And, if you are going to use statistics, make sure they are clearly evidenced.

Michael Lengahan is principal consultant for zero waste/circular economy at UK-based sustainability strategy consultancy Anthesis Group. Reflecting on the ASA’s decision, he said: “The caveats were not always clear and the wording overly sweeping … but I did not see anything from the ASA suggesting Oatly had flagrantly misused, cooked up, or fabricated data.”

In trying too hard, Oatly unfortunately undermined the very case it was trying to make and came across as that thing that never goes down well with consumers: preachy.

When it comes to the alt-dairy major’s adverts, it is literally back to the drawing board.