All the problems with Iceland’s banned Christmas advert and the subsequent furore

Iceland’s orangutan advert wasn’t technically banned; the ad was blocked as it is politically backed. Then there is the complex issue of palm oil’s environmental impact.

By now you have probably all seen the tear-jerking advert by UK frozen foods supermarket Iceland, with a baby orangutan telling a little girl how his home, the rainforest, has been destroyed by humans harvesting palm oil.

The advert closes with a dedication to “the 25 orangutans we lose every day”, followed by a message that Iceland is removing palm oil from all it’s label products, making them the first major UK retailer to do so. Iceland intended to air the commercial as their Christmas advert, but claims it was “banned by advertising regulations on grounds of political advertising”. The ad was designed to offer consumers the choice of an orangutan friendly #NoPalmOilChristmas.

Despite it not airing on TV, the advert has been a wild success and gone viral online, with 3.7 million views on YouTube. Over this weekend I’m sure you’ve seen it shared or talked about by a number of your Facebook friends, expressing their outrage. There has been a significant amount of media coverage, from The Guardian, the Daily Mail, the BBC, and even The New York Times. On This Morning, they held a debate over whether the ad should have been banned or not, and now a petition has been launched for the ban to be overturned, supported by celebrities such as James Corden.

However, there seems to be some confusion about why the advert was actually banned. The ad was not originally made by Iceland; the grocer made a deal with Greenpeace to rehash their animated short film, narrated by Greenpeace advocate Emma Thompson. The advert was not banned because political ads are not allowed on TV in Britain, but actually because of strict rules around broadcasting that potentially has a political nature.

Clearcast are the watchdog organisation that has stopped the ad from airing, and they claim that according the rules of the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising, the ad breaches the 2003 Communications Act, which bans political advertising.

A spokesperson commented, “Clearcast is not a regulator and we do not ban ads. The Iceland ad submitted to us is a Greenpeace film which has been appearing on the Greenpeace website for a number of months.” The code says “an advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is: an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature”. They continued that their concerns “do not extend to the content or message of the ad”.

Iceland’s founder Malcolm Walker says the company sought permission to use Greenpeace’s film and remove the logo to replace it with Iceland’s. A spokesperson for Iceland further commented “it was never Iceland’s intention to use it’s Christmas advert to support a political campaign, but rather to raise awareness and solidify our position on not using palm oil in food production”.

However, despite these comments, it must be considered that the ad contravened very well-known rules, meaning Iceland almost certainly anticipated this, and therefore both the decision to ban the ad and the consequent reaction of outrage, is probably exactly what Iceland wanted. From a marketing perspective, rousing the public to spread their message for them was a clever strategy that certainly helped to start up conversations and get their brand noticed.


The issue with boycotting palm oil

There is no denying that palm oil is bad for the environment. Greenpeace claims that in Southeast Asia palm oil is a major driver of deforestation. In Malaysian Borneo, roughly 58% of deforestation is caused by palm oil, and 40% in Indonesian Borneo. However, it is very difficult to attribute deforestation to any particular crop, given that any estimates rely mostly on satellite imagery. Overall, palm oil is not the main driver of deforestation; the World Resources Institute estimates that four commodities drive about half of the world’s tropical deforestation: palm oil, beef, soy, and paper and pulp. The remaining half is due to things such as timber production and illegal land use.

As such, Iceland’s move to ban palm oil products is potentially dangerous, because boycotting it may put pressure on other crops that are just as responsible for the world’s environmental problems, if not more so. Of all the sources of vegetable oil, palm oil is the most productive, producing up to five times the oil per unit of land and needs far less pesticides and fertiliser. Swapping it for something else could require the use of more land, fertiliser and pesticides to meet demand.

Experts say that instead of completely boycotting palm oil, it is integral that we put pressure on companies to use sustainable palm oil instead. Currently, only 20% of palm oil is certified as sustainable.

Jumping on the brand wagon and presenting your company as environmentally ethical can be a good thing if it inspires greater consumer consciousness, an effect which I’m sure this advert will have. But as more brands adopt this stance, consumers should be careful to not always take what they are being told at face value. In the same vein brands should hold themselves accountable and ensure that any eco-friendly strategies they develop are responsible and well-researched, not just because that’s the moral thing to do, but because negative consequences further down the line, or the inability to deliver on promises, could be seriously damaging to your brand.

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