The Oatly department of Mind Control — that’s what the alternative dairy company calls its marketing department — is always challenging the norms and thinking differently. Proof of that is its latest ad campaign released last month, which is an ad within an ad within an ad….

The spot begins with an online conversation between Oatly’s Art Director and Creative Director about a campaign execution, wherein the advertisement began with a bus stop ad that promoted the oat drink, followed by a boat sign about the bus stop ad, followed by a social media post about the boat sign, and on and on, till they finally end at a mural.

The spoofy ad — which Oatly calls its most “meta ad ever” has raised a chuckle world over. But then Oatly, which is known for its meta brand-voice has been pushing the envelope on anti-advertising with billboards like “You actually read this? Total success” or “We spent an insane amount of money on this fancy billboard. Hope someone interested in oat drink sees it”.

Oatly is not alone in turning advertising on its head. A couple of years ago, Frito-Lay’s campaign for Doritos in which it removed its logo and brand mentions, caught everyone’s eye.

Closer home, CRED’s television ads mocking the use of celebrities in advertising — cleverly getting celebs to do this themselves — cleaved through the clutter. Its billboard ad simply said “Download CRED”, not bothering to explain what it was.

A viral trend

Anti-advertising — as these ads are called — is getting big, with a host of brands unleashing campaigns that mock or spoof advertising, mostly catering to the Gen Z and millennial cohorts.

However, not all admen agree that such techniques should be termed anti-advertising. Amit Wadhwa, CEO, dentsu Creative India, says, “I don’t think we can call this anti-advertising, it’s just an unconventional point of view, that eventually is good for advertising. For example, if you look at the “anti-ad” CRED billboard, the creative is just explaining the concept by telling consumers that they only need CRED and nothing else.”

Most anti-ad campaigns ask consumers not to buy the product being marketed or poke fun at the concept of advertising itself. The idea is to use reverse psychology with consumers. If a brand tells you not to buy a product, chances are you’ll feel like buying it even more.

“We’re somehow being hardwired from childhood to do things that we’re told not to do. Whenever my mom would tell me not to touch a hot plate, I would immediately go and put my finger there. Similarly, if a brand is telling you, ‘hey, this t-shirt is not for you’, you would probably still go and buy it for the kick of saying I’ve broken a rule, in a way,” says Akshay Gurnani, CEO and Co-Founder, Schbang, an integrated marketing solutions agency.

The playbook

Kapil Ojha, Creative Group Director, DDB Mudra points out that a good anti-ad will need a lot of attitude ingrained in a brand’s DNA, preferably right from its inception.

“Though it is impossible to have a textbook definition of anti-advertising or precisely pinpoint specific styles that qualify for this genre, the genesis of anti-advertising could arguably be found in the iconic ‘Think Small’ print campaign for Volkswagen by DDB. If not the first, it was definitely one of the earliest and boldest anti-ads ever,” he says.

The VW ad that came out in 1959 used self-deprecating humour to tell consumers to think small — small insurance, small repair bills, fitting into a small parking spot etc.

“The campaign was bang on when it came to launching a German car in the US context, and it really capitalised the entire market with their communication,” says Gurnani.

Although there is no consensus on what anti-advertising is, almost every campaign in this genre has one thing in common — the use of a seemingly unmarketable device to grab consumer attention.

“To explain what anti-advertising is, perhaps it is better to start by saying what it is NOT. Anti-advertising is anything but humble, soft, or regular. It is not praising the product. On the contrary, it is like a brand roasting itself. It is not every brand’s cup of tea. It is not a one-off ad; you need to consistently build that persona. At the same time, it is not something you will get right often. And most of all, it is not safe,” says Ojha.

He believes that anti-advertising is one of the bravest forms of advertising. “After all, it heavily relies on confidence.”

A risky proposition

Ojha points out that anti-advertising is akin to investing in the stock market. “It can give very high returns, but is also a high-risk proposition. Be it context, conceptualising or execution, a small slip at any of these stages can make your no-matter-how-brave campaign, as Sir David Ogilvy put it, ‘pass like a ship in the night’. Or, even worse, invite brickbats in tonnes on social media,” he says.

According to Gurnani, younger start-ups are much more likely to incorporate concepts like anti-advertising in their creative communication.

He says Schbang, which is focussed on new-age communication, is trying to incorporate anti-ads in some of its pitches for the coming year.

But a problem with anti-advertisements is that not everyone might understand them. “I would assume that Gen Z and millennials would get this kind of humour and honesty better. It can also become difficult to explain to the older audiences about why this kind of messaging is actually supposed to be humorous and not to be taken at face value,” says Gurnani.

Wadhwa who prefers to call these messages “bold”, rather than anti-advertising, feels that with more start-ups and young consumers, there is bound to be a growth in such advertising. “However, this is just one trick and advertising will always be about multiple interesting ways of communicating for the brand,” he cautions.