It used to be a go-to gag in advertising to dress a chimpanzee in a tiny men’s suit, topped off with a fedora, and put him in a commercial. He seemed to be smiling, so he was having a good time, right?
What about that orangutan riding a bicycle? Or the ape playing musical instruments?
Those images, which once proliferated in media and marketing, have largely been dropped from mainstream advertising through a concerted, years-long effort by PETA, which says the portrayals are damaging to conservation efforts and to the primates themselves.
After convincing the world’s largest ad agencies—BBDO, DDB, Grey, Leo Burnett, McCann and Y&R among them—to stop using great apes in their ad campaigns, PETA turned its attention recently to stock photo services, asking the companies to take “unnatural” depictions of the animals out of circulation.
As a result of these talks, Alamy, Dreamstime, Pond5 and Shutterstock will be scouring their catalogs and removing inappropriate images (think chimps in makeup and tiaras), PETA announced today to Adweek. The companies, along with stock art giant Getty Images, have also rewritten their rules on accepting pictures or video of primates, limiting submissions to those taken in natural habitats or zoos.
Stock photo agencies provide artwork and images for a wide range of commercial and creative projects like print ads, greeting cards, calendars, web sites, social media, book covers and packaging, meaning the move will have an impact far beyond day-to-day advertising.
Dreamstime CEO Serban Enache made the decision when PETA gave him the backstory on some infamous ad tropes, busting the myth that performing animals are happy.
“There are plenty of images of animals behaving normally in natural settings that humans can empathize with,” Enache said.
Adweek spoke to Julia Gallucci, a primatologist and PETA’s senior corporate liaison, about the sea change in public attitude toward animal actors, when a smile is not really a smile and what PETA’s working on next.
Adweek: What’s the criteria for an unacceptable image?
Julia Gallucci, PETA primatologist: Ones that are taken in studios or other unnatural settings in which the animal is there for the purpose of having their photo taken. This means that there will be a reduction in the number of inappropriate images of primates “smiling,” behaving unnaturally, dressed in clothing, etc., that are available for ads and other commercial uses.
There are exceptions?
The agencies will continue to offer some images of primates that may meet the criteria for unnatural or inappropriate, but they will be available for editorial, not commercial use. These types of images are important for editorial use because they have historical value, and they document the current exploitation of primates in the pet trade, in laboratory testing, in entertainment.
How will these changes impact primates?
A number of studies—including two conducted by researchers at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and Harvard University—show that the inaccurate portrayal of apes in the media hinders conservation efforts and may also increase the demand for these wild animals as pets. People see them as cute and interesting and buy them without having any real knowledge of their needs or lifespan—up to 45 years in some cases.
Primates do not fare well when kept as pets. They are usually isolated from other animals and relegated to cages. Once they outgrow infanthood, they become unruly and aggressive, and owners often get rid of them at that point. They’re shuffled from home to home or may end up at a roadside zoo. Sometimes they are euthanized. Most monkey pets suffer from depression and many self-mutilate, a sign of psychological distress.
The changes the stock-image industry is making means that we will see a reduction of exploitative images of primates in ads and other media, and it will have a positive impact on primates, on both the individual and species levels.
What are we seeing when chimps apparently smile in ads and media?
The smile so often exhibited by chimpanzee actors is actually a fear grimace, not an expression of joy. The animals are conditioned using fear-based training methods that usually involve physical abuse to make them show their teeth on cue when posing for photographs.
What are some other issues you’re dealing with in the ad, marketing and media world?
In addition to continuing efforts to educate the advertising industry on the plight of primate actors, we encourage ad agencies to avoid using any wild animals in their ads and actively reach out to agencies to keep them informed. Wild animals have highly specialized needs and suffer considerably when used as performers. Beyond how they are treated on the set of a production, we’re concerned with their living conditions, social groupings, handling practices and training methods.
Most animals used as actors are removed from their mothers shortly after birth, which causes both mother and infant psychological harm, in order to habituate the babies to frequent handling by humans. They typically live in extreme confinement, and social animals like elephants and primates are often deprived of companionship. Physical abuse is standard practice for training many of the larger, more dangerous animals like big cats, bears and elephants.
Regarding depiction, we encourage agencies and other professionals in creative industries to be thoughtful about how images of wild animals in media can negatively impact conservation of endangered species. For example, PETA met with Instagram in 2016 to discuss the illegal trafficking of great apes and how sales were being promoted through imagery posted on their site. Through social campaigns and other methods, we’ve raised awareness of how so-called cute videos of animals like slow lorises have been found to fuel black market demand for these endangered animals as pets.