It was right that Iceland’s Christmas advert got banned – but it doesn’t matter

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Iceland aren’t just making waves with their frozen food but their latest television Christmas advert has created a storm, Kieran Ahuja gives his opinion on the prohibited advert.

I’m sure you’re aware of the advert that this article concerns. If, however, you’ve been in a coma for the last month, here’s a brief outline: national treasure and recently anointed Dame Emma Thompson narrates the story of an infant girl who finds a ‘Rang-tan’ (orangutan) in her bedroom, who ‘throws away her chocolate, and howls at my shampoo’. When the girl asks why Rang-tan (which I’m lead to believe is the name of the fictional ape) is there, the tragic message of the advert is introduced.

The second half of the advert poignantly inverts the first; instead of a little girl finding an orangutan in her bedroom, the baby orangutan finds humans in her forest. ‘There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do. You destroy all of our trees for your food and your shampoo. There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do. He took away my mother, and I’m scared he’ll take me too.’

The advert was designed to promote awareness of the destructive effects of the palm oil industry, which, as an epilogue to the short film points out, kills 25 orangutans a day – which has led to the classification of the species as critically endangered. The advert ends with Iceland committing to making sure that all of their own-brand products are palm oil-free.

However, Clearcast, the organisation responsible for the vetting of broadcast advertising, banned the advert before it could be seen on TV, citing the 2003 Communications Act, which bans any form of political advertising. In response to this, there was a twitter storm, and the unreleased video went viral.

Many people are misattributing the actual debate that surrounds this advert. A common reaction to the banning of this advert is ‘but the advert isn’t political!’ This is true. The content of the advert, whilst activist, does not take a political stance. Iceland themselves have expressed no desire to influence legislation, which is what the 2003 act bans. It’s a well-known rule in broadcasting, and I’d expect that Iceland knew about it.

The controversy lies in the fact that the short film is made by and released in collaboration with Greenpeace, an environmental activism group. The question that needs answering to conclude whether or not the ban was justified is not ‘was the advert political?’ It’s ‘are Greenpeace political?’

And I think they probably are. The Greenpeace website is choc-full of articles making clear their stance against fracking, nuclear deals and deforestation, all the while making comments that the government is not doing enough to combat these things. All these articles amalgamate to form what can be justifiably construed to be a political stance. And for the advertising standards agency, the mantra will be: when in doubt, ban it.

But it doesn’t matter. The advert being banned created such a storm that, for a while, it was all anyone was talking about. It’s received more attention because of the controversy around it. It’s absolutely everywhere online. James Corden posted it, getting 227k retweets at the time of this article being written. The version of the video that he linked has over 18m views. The video on Iceland’s YouTube channel has 5.4m views. It’s been talked about on ITV’s This Morning and Good Morning Britain, on Channel 4 and Sky News. How many other adverts can you think of that have had this level of conversation around them?

And as I said earlier, Iceland probably knew this. They will have known that it was likely, or at least possible, that this advert was going to be banned. It’s even possible that this was a very clever PR move by Iceland, but we’ll never know.

I class myself as pretty environmentally conscious, and shamefully, I didn’t know the full extent of the palm oil crisis. After calling my parents and broadcasting a poll to my embarrassingly low number of twitter followers, I have concluded that a fair number of other people didn’t know either. So, no matter what you feel about corporations taking activist stances, it’s good that people are informed about a pressing issue that they weren’t before.

Words by Kieran Ahuja

Edited by Alice Lorenzato-Lloyd

Hope and Vicky are your lifestyle editors.

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