Matthew Miller
Jan 28, 2022

Uproar: Are animal portrayals in ads a new brand risk?

Advertisers and agencies love animals, because animals sell. But a Year of the Tiger Gucci campaign that made activists growl shows that the definition of what’s appropriate may be evolving when it comes to using the world's fauna.

Uproar: Are animal portrayals in ads a new brand risk?

What if the statement, 'No animals were harmed during the making of this ad campaign' is no longer good enough?

That’s a question that CMOs and other brand shepherds may be pondering in the wake of a controversy over a recent Gucci campaign. The campaign, promoting a line of products for the Year of the Tiger, showed some of the big cats not in their natural setting, but in a ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ sort of milieu—their regal presences alongside people wearing expensive clothes and accessories in homes decorated with the garish decor that signifies great wealth (in luxury ads at least).

Animal-rights groups lambasted the brand for treating wild—not to mention endangered—animals as if they were pets or accessories. What’s more, Gucci had to face the denunciation even though most critics were aware from the start that the campaign did not use real tigers, just photo editing.

The reasoning Gucci’s critics unspooled is that such campaigns glorify the cruel and dangerous misuse of animals and contribute to a sense that they’re playthings for human enjoyment, while potentially driving exploitation.

"Animals are not objects to be paraded for profit," Nick Stewart, head of wildlife campaigns at London-headquartered non-profit World Animal Protection, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. "Whether the animals were actually there, draped over the piano or not, it is fuelling the mindset which contributes to their commodification. If brands wish to show images of real wild animals in their campaigns, they should show them in the wild where they belong, and in no direct interaction with humans.”

Brands and agencies must consider whether their campaigns might inadvertently fuel public demand for wildlife products and experiences, and whether their ads might actually drive demand for the trade of wildlife, whether legal or illegal, Stewart argues.

Gucci's tiger campaign remains active on its website

Gucci stuck with its campaign, and has its supporters.

“I don’t see any reason for controversy,” Daniel Langer, CEO of luxury brand strategy and development firm Équité and executive professor of luxury strategy at Pepperdine University in California, tells Campaign. "The way the campaign is filmed is in typical Gucci style, a celebration of people expressing their individuality using humour and lightness by exaggerating a clearly absurd situation with a twinkle in the eye.”

Langer praises the Gucci campaign for being so on-brand, and observes that every year luxury brands (and many other brands) celebrate the symbol that represents the Chinese zodiac. “So it’s not a campaign about animals per se, but about the symbolism of the zodiac,” he says. “However, when it’s done, it should always be on-brand. Gucci managed it this year excellently. Showcasing an animal can help to raise awareness and actually help to motivate preservation measures. It has to always be on-brand and respectful. Gucci did that perfectly.”

Increasing pushback?

Langer no doubt speaks for many who see no foul in Gucci’s work. Many people might even brand such concern for animal welfare as 'wokeism’ or ‘virtue signaling’ run rampant. Yet according to others with a good perspective on the situation, it seems clear that consumer expectations around this issue are changing.

“We are seeing a shift,” says Boaz Paldi, global engagement and partnership manager at the United Nations Development Programme. New York-based Paldi works on a wide range of animal-protection initiatives. The recent ‘Don’t choose extinction’ campaign that kicked off with a velociraptor addressing the UN was “my baby”, he tells Campaign. He’s also an adviser to The Lion’s Share Fund, the innovative UN-led programme that asks advertisers to contribute an amount equal to 0.5% of their media spend for conservation when they use animals—wild or domesticated—in their marketing.

“The shift is slow,” he continues. “It's not as quick as we would like it to be, but it's definitely there. Consumers today are more aware of environmental impact, of sustainability, of what the real costs of products are, what the damage is. We're definitely seeing that shift across the board.”

L-R: Boaz Paldi, Nick Stewart, Daniel Langer

Paldi points to ample research showing that brand purpose is quite high on the list of factors people, especially young people, consider when it comes to the companies they buy from. And speaking from experience, he sees the increasing engagement the UN garners for its campaigns as evidence of rising demand among consumers for brands to act in ways that support the planet—and justice for all its inhabitants.

"We reach more people," he says simply. “More people are aware of our messaging. More people are engaged with us. We are able to mobilise the public more easily.”

For the record, Paldi says he understands the criticism of the Gucci campaign.

“There's only about 3,800 tigers in the wild right now, so it's a very, very acute problem, and we think that the perception of animals as accessories really adds to that,” he says.

Yet he also points out that Gucci signed on with The Lion’s Share about a year ago, and confirms this means the company will be chipping in half a percent of what it spends on media for the tiger campaign.

World Animal Protection’s Stewart acknowledges this as well, but says it’s not enough.

“Like many other fashion brands have done as part of their Year of the Tiger campaigns, Gucci has committed funds to protect endangered species and their natural habitats,” he says. "But now they must also reflect this across their business practices.”

"We've had some conversations with Gucci,” Paldi says. “We hope that they realise that consumer demand is moving away from these types of ads, and they move away with it.”

Tried and true

On the other hand, Paldi is also a realist about brands using animals. A practice stretching back to the beginning of advertising itself isn’t going to change anytime soon. And of course, The Lion’s Share depends on the practice continuing.

"If you think about it, 0.5% is not a lot of money for each brand, but pooled together it has impact,” Paldi says. “We've already seen impact from The Lion’s Share. We know that this model works.”

About 30 brands have signed onto the initiative since it started in 2018, and Paldi reveals that their contributions have added up to around $40 million thus far, in cash and in-kind contributions such as media space. One place the money has gone is into the Leuser ecosystem in Indonesia. There the find has helped purchase buffer lands around the area and paid to employ residents as rangers, which provides them with income that’s not detrimental to, but rather supportive of, the natural environment. The Lion’s Share has also helped protect elephants in Mozambique and is working with 13 South American nations to set up a jaguar corridor.

The pandemic slowed efforts, but Paldi believes the fund’s biggest growth lies ahead. The initiative is revamping its communications and aiming to make a more proactive push in 2022, he says.

“We still believe that we can reach $100 million a year, and I don’t think that’s going to be very hard,” Paldi says. He points out that if the organisation could secure participation from the world’s top 20 advertisers, 0.5% of their media spend would amount to $40 million a year.

"We believe that at some point it becomes a snowball, and companies join because other companies join, and The Lion’s Share logo becomes a certificate of excellence, and brands want that, to show that they're treating animals fairly in their ads."

The Lion’s Share Fund launched its ‘Eye to eye’ campaign in October. The billboard reads: “It’s time for brands that use animals to sell their products to give back: Ask the brands you love to sign up at"

What’s a brand to do?

Langer of Équité wasn’t previously familiar with The Lion’s Share, but says he feels brands should make their own choices when it comes to conservation causes. “I am against any external prescription what a brand should do in terms of philanthropy,” he says. “It’s the decision of each individual brand. There are many very good animal-welfare organisations, and many brands contribute to that cause in multiple ways.”

In this region, the brand that’s probably the most closely associated with panthera tigris has a policy for animal portrayals, and in fact has made preservation of the eponymous felines a central part of its purpose.

“Tiger beer, along with all Heineken brands, adheres to our Responsible Marketing Code, which notes that our brands respect the environment, animals and people, and actively role-model positive stories about the human-animal bond,” Sean O’Donnell, Tiger’s Singapore-based global brand director, tells Campaign. “In 2017, Tiger beer partnered with WWF through a digital-led campaign that harnessed the power of art to raise awareness and fight illegal tiger trade. The brand also donated US$1 million to support the organisation’s tiger conservation efforts.”

Stewart of World Animal Protection advises brands to consult with animal-welfare organisations that stand against captivity, in order to be guided toward a truly wildlife-friendly approach. “If brands are informed it will help keep wild animals in the wild,” he says, adding that brands can ask themselves a series of questions about any proposed campaign:

  • Where did this animal come from?
  • Can its captive environment meet its needs as a wild animal?
  • Are they rare or endangered, and would this campaign further contribute to that status by depicting them in cruel and unsuitable ways?
  • Is this natural behaviour or a natural environment they are being displayed or portrayed in?
  • Is this showing respect for the individual animal or are they being portrayed as mere commodities, accessories or luxury items?
  • What kind of consumer behaviour or mindset is this encouraging? Will this campaign perpetuate the erroneous belief that these animals are suitable to be kept as pets or misused as selfie props and social-media content?

“We need organisations to lead the way by educating their consumers on the plight of wild animals, rather than directly or inadvertently driving their commercial exploitation,” Stewart says.

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