“Obay” Explained

by Joey deVilla on February 22, 2008

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It’s official: according to this story at Canada.com — Mystery Ad Gains Momentum: Whodunit? — the ads for “Obay”, which have been popping up all over Ontario are the first wave of a viral advertising campaign for Ontario Colleges.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Though Scientology and anti-pharmaceutical lobbyists have been widely named as suspects in the Obay whodunit, detective work by Canadian blogs Accordion Guy and Torontoist have pegged Ontario Colleges as the likeliest source of the ads – which despite being clustered in eastern Canada, have gained national attention online.

Questioned about their involvement with the campaign, Ontario Colleges spokesman Rob Savage was cautiously vague (“at this point, we don’t have any information we can give you”), but told Canwest News Service he would follow up before the end of the month about the “long-term marketing stuff” being undertaken by the organization.

They’re being quite generous: Torontoist really did the detective work. I merely reported that someone on a mailing list to which I subscribe mentioned a connection between the Obay ads and Ontario Colleges; the people at Torontoist investigated much further.

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For those of you not familiar with the Canadian use of the words “university” and “college”, here’s a quick explanation:

  • University refers to a post-high-school institution that generally can grant many levels of degrees — bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, doctorate degrees and so on.
  • College refers to a post-high-school institution that generally can grant bachelor’s degrees, as well as certificates and diplomas.

Universities are perceived as more prestigious than colleges; in some circles, college is seen as where you go if you just university is out of your grasp, whether intellectual, financial or status-wise. The Obay ads, now that it’s known who’s behind them, are probably a campaign that promotes Ontario Colleges by poking fun at parental pressure to go to university and to show that a college program is a viable choice.

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The thing I found most interesting about the Obay ad campaign is that the ads are a sort of Rorschach Test — the psychological test in which you’re shown inkblots and you’re asked to look at them and describe what you see. For the people who commented on my original article as well as for commenters in other places on the net, the Obay ads seemed to reveal their “hot buttons”. Various commenters saw the ads as:

  • A commentary on the some parents’ use of drugs to make their teenagers more compliant
  • A Church of Scientology campaign against psychology and psychiatry
  • A call to arms against mindless conformity
  • Culture jamming by media-savvy pranksters
  • Yet another example of the “billboard child-raising nonsense” and “the absolutely flawed ideas of the left and the simply retarded ideas of the hopelessly stupid”
  • Yet another example of the hippie “I have unresolved feelings of rebelling against my parents” metality
  • Actual ads for real behaviour-altering drugs for your kids
  • Just stupid

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Since these ads are all over Toronto and since about one in three people in the Toronto area has a Facebook account, it’s no surprise that there are three “Obay” Facebook groups:

Colleges Ontario will host a media launch next Monday that, according to Torontoist, will reveal “the news behind Obay and its side effects on Ontario’s Post-secondary Education.” Torontoist will cover that story.


On a related note, here’s a parody ad from This magazine, a publication with a very progressive slant, courtesy of Torontoist:

“Obey Spray” ad
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Click the photo to see it on its original page.

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