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Unnatural Talent: The Use of Primates in the Media.

Chimpanzee at Sweetwaters Sanctuary, Kenya.

In the weeks preceding this year’s SuperBowl, media and social networks reported on the decision by CareerBuilder to use live chimpanzees in their latest advertisement, which would debut to millions during the game. Notably, many of the articles were either written by organisations condemning the use of live chimpanzees, or gave considerable mention to them. The article below explores the issue of primates being used in the media, and explains why it is a problem for both individual primates, and endangered species in the wild.

What springs to mind when you think about primates in the media? For me, it is the PG Tips chimpanzees. Though it has now been ten years since those famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) advertisements featuring live chimpanzees were pulled from our television screens, there are still many examples of non-human primates being used in the media – whether to advertise products, or as characters in feature films.

The PG Tips adverts led to huge popularity increases for the brand, and the chimps were voted Britain’s favourite advertising characters in a 2003 poll. Though there was speculation that the 2002 move to animated characters was brought about by pressure from animal rights activists, PG Tips maintained at the time that it was simply to do with appealing to a younger audience, and that their chimps had always been well cared for.

This is a claim that is consistently echoed by the advertisers and film-makers that use primates today. In 2010, Costa Coffee came under fire from animal charities and consumers when it used sixteen monkeys in its first TV advertisement. Its initial response to criticism was that animal welfare standards were never compromised, and that the monkeys had come from a special organisation and were accustomed to such work. Even more recently, Wonderful Pistachios used a capuchin monkey named Crystal to advertise its product, and the same monkey is due to appear in a feature film being released later this year, as well as having been used in The Hangover Part II, released last summer.

If film and advertising companies source the primates they use from specialist organisations, and welfare standards are adhered to, then what is the problem? First of all, welfare standards that relate to food, water, space and handling do not address the social needs of primates. All primates have highly complex social hierarchies and can be profoundly affected by being kept alone or in unsuitable groups. They are also extremely intelligent, and even though it could be argued that their acting work constitutes mental stimulation or enrichment, the environments in which filming takes place are stressful for humans, let alone for species that have evolved to spend their days foraging, travelling through large natural habitats, and interacting with their own kind.

In addition to this, the appearance of primates in the media can lead to misconceptions about their status as endangered species, leading members of the public to believe that they aren’t, in fact, threatened. A recent study found that people who were shown television advertisement clips involving chimpanzee actors were three times more likely to believe that chimpanzees make good pets – a matter of great concern when the trade in pet primates continues to pose a huge problem in the UK as well as in many other countries – and that individuals should be allowed to keep them, than those who were shown documentary clips about wild chimpanzees and their conservation. If it is so easy to create misconceptions about well-recognised species like chimpanzees, one can only assume that the direct or indeed the knock-on effect for lesser known species may be even more significant.

What do you think? At a time when the conservation status of many species of primates is becoming ever more fragile, should large film and advertising companies be taking more responsibility for the effect they have, or is it all just harmless fun if the animals concerned are cared for properly? Should the use of live primates in the media be banned? Join the debate by commenting below.

  • Leila Owen

    This is a tricky one! If the animals are treated with respect and cared for then I think the use of animals within advertising or the media can help to promote the animal. Take ‘The Artist’ for example, Battersea Dogs home has reported a huge increase in people re-homing Jack Russells. Surely, that’s got be a positive, as long as the owners are aware of the responsibility and have not just succumbed to the demands of their children! I’m all for films that use animals to inform and educate the masses about the plight of the animal or promote our relationships with animals such as ‘Big Miracle’. I have to say that I do not agree with dressing up animals or using them to solely to promote a film or product. To conclude, the people that think that they could keep chimpanzees as pets need their heads examining!!!