Commentary: Saving the orangutans shouldn't be this complicated

Commentary: Saving the orangutans shouldn't be this complicated

Recent advertisements promoting conservation of these animals need to go beyond being cute, says Financial Times' Michael Skapinker.

greenpeace iceland advert orang utan screegrab
A screengrab of 'Rang-tan: The story of dirty palm oil' advertisement made by Greenpeace. (Photo: Youtube screengrab, Greenpeace International)

LONDON: In 2010, environmental campaigners outdid some of the world’s biggest companies at what was once their own game.

Nestle and Unilever market and sell some of the world’s best-known products, from Nescafe to Magnum ice cream. Yet they were thrown into disarray by a devastating campaign by Greenpeace against their use of palm oil, which the environmental group said was causing widespread deforestation in areas inhabited by orangutans. 

Unilever swiftly agreed to suspend the purchase of palm oil from Sinar Mas, the Indonesian company that Greenpeace accused of threatening orangutan habitats, but Nestle held out.

Greenpeace responded with what looked like an online advertisement for Nestle’s Kit Kat chocolate. A stressed office worker, deciding to take a break, snapped off what looked like a piece of Kit Kat chocolate. 

Except it was a hairy finger, with a finger nail. Blood dripped on to the worker’s keyboard and across his chin. He had eaten an orangutan’s digit — and the scene then shifted to show us the ape’s devastated forest home.

kitkat greenpeace screengrab
A hairy finger, with a finger nail, in what looked like a piece of Kit Kat chocolate. (Photo: Youtube screengrab, Greenpeace Mexico)

READ: Indonesia’s orangutans threatened by expansion of palm oil plantations

Nestle rose to the provocation, complaining to YouTube that its hosting of the film violated the company’s intellectual property rights, at which point the video went viral.

So I was intrigued to see how much the corporate world had learnt about effective orangutan-related marketing in the past eight years. 


The first look at Iceland’s latest effort suggested it had learnt a lot. The UK frozen food retailer said it had produced a Christmas television ad that was different from its rivals’ traditional seasonal attempts.

The 90-second animation, voiced-over by actor Emma Thompson, is about a young girl whose bedroom is invaded by a little orangutan, which proceeds to throw her things about.

“She destroys all of my house plants and she keeps on shouting ‘ooh’, she throws away my chocolate and she howls at my shampoo,” the girl says. 

The orangutan explains that it has come to her bedroom because there is a human in its forest, tearing up the landscape. 

He took away my mother and I’m scared he’ll take me too. There are humans in my forest and I don’t know what to do, they’re burning it for palm oil so I thought I’d stay with you.

The girl leaps into action, promising to campaign for the orangutan and its forest. 

“I swear it on the stars, the future’s not yet written, but I’ll make sure it is ours,” the girl pledges, giving the little ape a cuddle.

The film supports Iceland’s promise to remove palm oil from its own-label food by the end of 2018. The ad is sweet, affecting — and devoid of any real understanding of the issue.


Palm oil’s threat to orangutans is real, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a 70-year old organisation dedicated to species survival. Other animals threatened by palm oil include tigers and gibbons.

The rapid growth  of palm oil plantations has been blamed for the destruction of tropical forests
The rapid growth of palm oil plantations has been blamed for the destruction of tropical forests that are home to many endangered species, and forest fires that occur every year during the dry season due to illegal slash-and-burn clearance. (Photo: AFP/JANUAR)

READ: Borneo orangutans dying off as forests are lost: Study

However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature says that the answer was not to stop using palm oil entirely, because its replacements required even more land. 

“If (palm oil) is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer. To put a stop to the destruction we must work towards deforestation-free palm oil,” it says.

But what match are such difficult trade-offs for a little girl and a cute ape? And Iceland’s film then caught a break: It was banned, Iceland said, from television screens this Christmas “by advertising regulations on grounds of political advertising”. 

Petitions sprang up calling for the ban to be overturned and the film has already had more than 3 million views.

READ: Dear Singapore, a plastic future is not fantastic, a commentary

Except it wasn’t banned for being too political. 

Clearcast, the body that clears advertisements for the UK commercial channels, said the problem with the film was not its politics, but that it had not been made by Iceland. It had been made by Greenpeace and had been on its website for months. 

Clearcast said that an ad cannot appear if it was “inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature”, which Greenpeace was. Iceland confirms that it used the ad with Greenpeace’s permission.

It seems we will have to wait for a company to construct its own message that has the impact that Greenpeace’s does. And the companies’ real challenge will be to present the palm oil issue with some of its complexity rather than with cute superficiality.

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Source: Financial Times/nr