#NoPalmOilChristmas: In the UK, Iceland Food’s Holiday Ad Stirs Up Controversy

If you are out and about in London, you might have seen a distressed orangutan on the loose recently, clinging to a Christmas tree at Coin Street at Southbank or on Oxford Street or in a park—searching for a new home.

The stunt was staged by Iceland Foods—the smallest major supermarket in the UK.

Iceland grabbed headlines recently for airing its Christmas ad online after it was banned from being televised by broadcast regulator Clearcast. The spot, Rang-tan, produced by Greenpeace, sheds a harsh, realistic light on the issue of palm oil and the destruction to orangutans’ natural rainforest habitats.

“Our stranded, distressed orangutan is a stark and potent symbol of the effects of deforestation,” Iceland Foods managing director Richard Walker said. “We always try to give people a real choice about what they buy and this was a key driver of our decision to allow Iceland customers to join us in saying ‘no to palm oil.’

The #NoPalmOilChristmas campaign also highlighted Iceland’s commitment to remove palm oil from its own-label products by year’s end. “We are determined to be at the forefront of efforts to guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction and Iceland will continue to be a driving force until this environmental impact is drastically reduced,” added Walker.

A petition to get Iceland’s Christmas ad on TV has reached more than 880,000 signatures, buoyed by social media support.

Clearcast deemed the ad “political,” breaching the law “inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature.”

The controversy has pushed the ad to new heights of resonance—more than 4 million views on Iceland’s YouTube channel, 13 million views on Facebook and more than 90,000 Twitter retweets.

“If it had just gone straight on air it would have been great in terms of starting a conversation,” said Krupali Cescau, head of planning at brand agency Amplify. “Actually, the fact that it’s been released like this, as a banned advert, is riding the sentiment that is out there at the moment. Iceland’s tripled the views it had from its 2017 ad just on YouTube.” Iceland and Greenpeace had agreed to run the advert without branding in an effort to comply with broadcasting law.

The Rang-tan spot ends with a dedication to “the 25 orangutans we lose every day.” Close to 100,000 orangutans have been killed in Borneo since 1999 due to deforestation, and palm oil production is to blame in large part.

As Wired points out, “Instead of boycotting palm oil, it’s important to put pressure on companies to use sustainable palm oil.” New technologies like genomic sequencing of plants and trees can also help. The challenge is substantial—but the consequence of no change is so much greater.

Iceland Foods

The Guardian summed up the whole issue: “Concern about our planet has never been greater, thanks to last month’s UN report warning that we have 12 years to stop irreversible damage to the Earth. Yet, one month on, a supermarket’s Christmas advert showing the damage palm oil is doing to the natural world has been deemed too political to put on TV. If that doesn’t make you weep, I’m not sure what will.”

Iceland has managed to deliver an even broader message and impact than perhaps imagined: Advertising with inherent ethics can no longer be banned.

“Businesses aren’t the most obvious winners in a battle for environmental consciousness, but in this case, Iceland is setting a shining example of how a retailer can attempt to help the planet, and shows that commercial interests and climate change don’t have to be in conflict,” notes The Daily Express. “There are massive failures here—but not from Iceland.”

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