Swedish oat brand Oatly has always prided itself on being a bit of a marketing maverick.

Just look at its first TV ad, which was screened during the Super Bowl and featured CEO Toni Petersson in a field singing a ditty about his company’s oat milk being “like milk but made for humans”. Wow, no cow indeed.

Or its weird and wonderful campaign in October 2021, which was described by Campaign as “the advertising equivalent of a matryoshka doll” and shows, in the words of Oatly: “An Instagram post of a video of us talking to ourselves about a mural in Amsterdam…which happens to feature an Oatly newspaper ad…which is about an Oatly mobile truck ad…which is depicting a woman playing the organ in front of an Oatly billboard…that happens to show an Oatly Instagram post… that features a photo of our recent floating billboard…which shows the start of this whole campaign: a bus stop ad trying to sell oat drink.”

But while Oatly is celebrated in marketing circles for its increasingly ‘meta’ approach to advertising, its provocative attempts to “start a conversation on climate change” have this week resulted in a firm slap on the wrist by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ASA today published its findings on an investigation into Oatly’s controversial ‘Help Dad’ advertising campaign, which received over 100 complaints, including from the campaign group A Greener World.

The regulator ruled that four claims in the ad relating to Oatly’s environmental impact vs the impact of dairy milk and the wider environmental impact of meat and dairy were “misleading” and breached advertising rules.

Of five complaints raised against the ad, only one – relating to a claim that food’s annual greenhouse emissions would be reduced by 49% if everyone in the world went vegan – was not upheld.

The ruling is an important moment for the UK meat and dairy industry, which has long railed against brands making claims that plant-based products are ‘better for you and the environment', without providing substantiated evidence.

In the wake of the ASA’s previous ruling on Alpro, it’s also further proof that plant-based brands will not escape the wider crackdown on greenwashing and must apply scientific rigour to any environmental claims they make.

It is crucial we have conversations around climate change and the impact of our diets. But any such debate must be, to use a now unpopular phrase, 'rooted in science'. Especially if the brand starting the conversation stands to directly benefit from influencing people’s choices.

Arguably, of course, the result of this verdict – that Oatly won't be able to show a 12-month-old ad again in its current form – isn't a huge deterrent. It's moved on. 

Still, Oatly has toned things down a touch in its latest advertising concept, ‘The Norm&Al Show’, which features two Oatly puppets and has ditched anti-meat and dairy totalitarianism in favour of a more flexible approach.

“You don’t need to break up with meat forever… it’s alright to sometimes eat cheese whenever,” sings Norm in one ad, as he encourages Al to “come on and eat the flexitarian way”.

Granted, the campaign still suggests plant-based is best for the planet. “As long as you just try to do your best, karma’s going to do the rest” stands out as one particular dig at meat and dairy eaters. 

But it's altogether more moderate than its predecessor. Crucially, it’s also more fun – with its ‘Backstage’ episode, featuring Al having an existential crisis when he realises he is only an oat drink carton puppet, among Oatly’s most meta yet.

It all proves plant-based brands don’t need to preach to get their message across. And if they do, they'd be advised to get their facts straight.