A major brand like Nikon should know better than to glamorise the misuse of exotic animals, said Elfassy. The tagline ‘I Am Life in Every Frame’, when applied to a room full of taxidermied animals, added insult to injury (here's a larger photo).
“Nikon is a leading global brand and anything they do has major impact,” wrote Elfassy, who helps run Shark Rescue in Hong Kong and, in the interest of full disclosure, once featured in a Sony campaign as part of a competition. “For this reason, they must put in the effort to think those extra steps ahead. In this ad they only thought about how it shows off the technical and functional aspect of the product, but they have to show that they also deal with issues that are bigger than themselves.”
How responsible should brands have to be?
When traced back to its source, the image in question was part of an artistic photoshoot by UK-photographer Miss Aniela as part of a fantasy themed photoshoot aimed at demonstrating the Nikon D810’s capabilities with elaborate sets and very little post-production. The image was to be part of an exhibition in an art gallery and to illustrate a brochure promoting the camera. It was then selected, we understand, by Nikon, to be used on the billboard in Hong Kong. JWT holds Nikon’s creative account in Asia-Pacific but declined to comment. However sources have said that JWT Hong Kong was only responsible for resizing the image and not for the copy.
A making-of video on the photoshoot explained that no animals were harmed directly for the set. The whimsical taxidermied animals, which include a polar bear with goggles and a giraffe suspended by balloons, belong to Aynhoe Park, a 17th-century mansion in the Cotswolds. In fact, while not apparent in the ad, the zebra, flamingo and, of course, the model were alive.
But that isn’t the issue, said Elfassy. There is a real problem in the use of exotic animals in high-fashion shoots precisely because it conveys the idea that nothing perks up a mansion more than a dead endangered animal. “This fetishises trophy animals that are endangered, which makes all of this even more offensive," he said. "They’re also placing the ad in a spot that sees lots of Chinese tourists. Given that China is one of the leading nations pushing many species towards extinction, placing the ad where high-traffic will be exposed to this dumb message only exposes the brand to even greater scrutiny.”
Animal photographer and former head of communications for WWF Hong Kong Alastair (Ali) Bullock agreed with Elfassy. “Just because they are dead and stuffed does not make it okay to use them," Bullock said. "I think most people realise that needless game hunting is a bad idea when done as a sport. The only way these animals should be displayed is in a photograph taken when they are in the wild. What a wasted opportunity.”
While both Bullock, who is currently integration manager at Infiniti F1, and Elfassy may be considered rather sensitive to the topic due to the work they do in animal conservation, both are also professionals in marketing/advertising, and it is our very antipathy to the issue they are concerned with.
Brands have the power to influence and shape social norms. De Beers started the diamond engagement ring and Santa Clause wears red because of Coca-Cola—to cite just two legendary examples. So too, major brands have the ability to normalise antisocial behaviour. Sometimes they are called out on it, as Dolce & Gabbana was for this ad that was banned for glamourising rape. Other times, they inspire an irresponsible desire to own a pet leopard or lion cub, as this cover of Harpers Bazaar and this ad campaign by Bulgari featuring Julianne Moore and two lion cubs may have done.
For proof that humanity now has no problems with using captive and drugged wild animals for selfies, head over to Tigers of Tinder, which features men who believe the presence of a helpless big cat will add to perceptions of their virility.
You can’t guard against everything
Even taking Bullock and Elfassy’s points into account, however, one can argue that Nikon’s ad is still a fairly innocent example of the animal-abuse genre. Although, considering this isn’t the first time the brand has run afoul of animal rights activists, it could have been more sensitive on the subject.
Graham Hitchmough, regional director of Asean for the Brand Union, believes it’s rather extreme to call Nikon out on the ad as there was no implicit support of the use of exotic animals in inappropriate ways. However, he continued, Elfassy had every right to use something in the public domain to present his point of view.
“It’s the nature of the media environment that anything a brand puts out there can be used for a purpose other than intended,” said Hitchmough.
While it’s tempting to try and sanitise every commercial message, that leads to bland advertising, which despite the precautions can still be used in unintended ways. Take this billboard by Samsung, for example. The key, says Hitchmough, is for brands to have a communications strategy in place that will allow them to respond swiftly to these circumstances and to be very sure that they can justify their advertising.
This is where Nikon falls down on both counts.
While the company's marketing team for Asia-Pacific was responsive and pleasant, ultimately the authorities at the brand’s headquarters in Japan declined to comment on the issue despite having ample time to do so. This implies a rigid and inflexible communications strategy, one that is ill-equipped to deal with the speed at which a social-media crisis can evolve.
On the second point, it’s questionable whether the brand can justify this particular ad’s presence in its global marketing campaign, “I am Nikon”, which emphasises the use of its cameras as part of an identity or a lifestyle. Furthermore, the image itself was taken out of the context for which it was intended—an art gallery.
“It’s quite out of step with what I’m used to seeing in Asia," commented Hitchmough. "It’s always been about experts using the camera in the field for reportage or documentary-making, not for high-fashion. I was surprised.”
Zayn Khan, CEO of Southeast Asia for brand consultancy Dragon Rouge, echoed Hitchmough’s sentiment. “It does feel a bit strange to use preserved and endangered animals in a photoshoot for Nikon," Khan said. "Are they saying you can capture and preserve wildlife forever with a Nikon? That strikes me as a tad insensitive given the catastrophic situation many of these species face.”
This spot by Nikon, continued Khan, reminds him of the famous Cadbury spot with a gorilla drumming to Phil Collins. “It received much praise for being cut-through and for challenging the category," he said. "However, as a consumer and as a human being, I felt deeply uncomfortable to witness what came across as a mockery of a species in crisis. It also felt at odds with everything else Cadbury was doing at the time to build its brand.”
In conclusion, while brands can’t be expected to predict every issue, they should be in a position to justify and offer solid reasoning for any message they put out there, said Hitchmough. “When, as in this case, it seems to be a one-off, out-of-context effort that sits outside the core strategy of the brand, that gets difficult.”