Orangutans, Iceland Foods and a Future for #Fakenews

Orangutans, Iceland Foods and a Future for #Fakenews

Why the latest Iceland Foods campaign in the UK heralds a bleak future for Brands as Broadcasters

Nick Fawbert
/ Categories: Analysis

It’s a story that has caught the imagination of the world. It’s about the exploitation of an endangered species, and their innocent guardians fighting a rear-guard action for survival against faceless bureauacrats while the environment unravels.

But in reality, it’s not the latest episode from the Netflix / Okja stable released to warm our hearts in the Yuletide season, it’s a murky battle for good and evil in the tawdry world of retail branding.

With over 14 million views and 600,000 shares on Facebook and over 4 million views on Youtube in just a few days, it’s rocking the world. If you haven't seen it, here it is:

On the face of it, it has the perfect ingredients for global outcry: animated anthropomorphised baby animals, a guiltless and disempowered naïf, rapacious corporates and intransigent public servants.

But in this world of smoke and mirrors, it’s not so easy to identify the miscreants, despite the fact that – just like most of us – I only want one winner: the Ranga.

For Iceland Foods, the apparently unwitting messenger, the issue was clear:


And, perhaps at first glance rightfully so, they attracted over 90,000 retweets, establishing a foundation on which a global story could unfold.

The story was catchy, and to add fuel to the fire Iceland Foods claimed in a Change.org petition that the ad had been banned for ‘being too political’.

They cast a delightful villain: an unknown corporate body acting in the interests of the evil media was to blame.


And what a hook. As I write this the UK Change.org petition has attracted over 840,000 signatures, likely with many yet to come.


They certainly got Iceland in the title, but perhaps the Orangutans deserved the smallest of mentions as well?

Now 840,000 is a big number. Even that was dwarfed by the numbers achieved by presenters like James Corden sharing it with his 10.3 million followers.

Add in all the rest of the exposure and you’ve got massive global exposure for Orangutans and a mid-market British retailer whose campaign never actually got started.

So why am I not happy?

Because this looks like #fakenews even if it’s on the ‘right’ side of the debate.


These guys are perhaps the only truly innocent party in the whole saga.

As Greenpeace references:

“Nearly 50 years of conservation efforts have been unable to prevent orangutan numbers on Borneo from plummeting. The latest data published by a team from 38 international institutions, led by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and Liverpool John Moores University in Great Britain, suggests that between 1999 and 2015 the total number of Bornean orangutans was reduced by more than 100,000 animals.”

A horrifying story, and one that needs immediate action.

But now we are wondering why we’re talking about Greenpeace – and there’s a good reason.

The Greenpeace Connection

It seems that Iceland Foods didn’t make this advertisement, Greenpeace did - and they had already taken it to market once before.

As reported by Britain's The Guardian on Friday 9th November, Iceland Food's founder, Malcolm Walker, said:

This was a film that Greenpeace made with a voice over by Emma Thompson.

But the Greenpeace distribution list in social media hadn’t got them the reach they wanted (a timely lesson in the perils of preaching to the converted), so they went looking for friends and found Iceland Foods.

The thing is, Greenpeace is a political organisation – and that becomes very important later on.

The Iceland Connection

Malcolm Walker continues:

We got permission to use it and take off the Greenpeace logo and use it as the Iceland Christmas ad. It would have blown the John Lewis ad out of the window. It was so emotional.

Somehow, the purity got lost there, didn't it.

This doesn’t look like saving the Orangutans or even saving planet, but an astute step in an ongoing British retail war.

The John Lewis Partnership, owners of Waitrose and online delivery service Ocado have been looking down their nose at the popularity of Iceland amongst working class Brits for years – and this was a beautiful way for Iceland Foods to land a blow against their environmental credentials right where it hurts: going foot-to-balls with their flagship Christmas campaign.

Jessica Brown of The Guardian noted also on the 9th November that Iceland tried to walk back Walker's ebullient turn of phrase:

Iceland’s managing director, Richard Walker, says its Christmas ad was the retailer’s ‘first chance to prove we can put commercial interests to the side in order to make the changes required to save our planet in the aftermath of the landmark UN report’. But, he says, it failed.

Except that with those exposure numbers, it’s not looking like a failure to anyone in the industry.

But maybe we are too cynical. If Iceland aren’t the baddies, who are?


We shouldn’t sidestep the specific accusations made by Iceland of Clearcast. With mealy linguistic subterfuge and innuendo they asserted that the ad had been banned by Clearcast for being too political.

But Clearcast has no authority to ban ads, it only has the authority to clear them with respect to the Broadcast Code of Advertising Practice. It has no power over the contents of that code:

In the UK broadcast advertising has by law to be precleared before it is broadcast. Clearcast works on behalf of the broadcasters to ensure that ads meet the BCAP rules. The rules about political advertising are set by parliament in the Communications Act and reflected in the BCAP rules.”

And what’s more, they said:

Clearcast have not banned the ad for being too political. We have no problem with the content or message in the ad. The problem arises because the film was made by Greenpeace and the rules prevent adverts ‘inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature’ from being broadcast on television.

They gave they rebadging of the content from Greenpeace to Iceland Foods short shrift:

The problem is that, having been running on their social media channels, and even more so following recent publicity, the content is closely associated with Greenpeace and therefore makes an association with them whether or not they are explicitly mentioned in the Iceland ad itself.

It’s hard not to agree with them.

The British Government

So perhaps then, the British Government are the real baddies.

The Communications Act was written in 2003, so it did not have Rangas and Iceland Foods in mind. It explicitly bans the distribution of content from political actors in the broadcast media. We can check out their views here. From 321.2.a:

For the purposes of section 319(2)(g) an advertisement contravenes the prohibition on political advertising if it is […] an advertisement which is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature

It was the ‘on behalf of’ that discounted the Iceland Foods rebadging.

And whether Greenpeace itself is political, we have 321.3.b:

“For the purposes of this section objects of a political nature and political ends include each of the following […] bringing about changes of the law in the whole or a part of the United Kingdom or elsewhere, or otherwise influencing the legislative process in any country or territory

And of course, Greenpeace campaigns regularly on behalf of changing the law. It would only be reasonable for Clearcast to assert, as they have, that it is up to them to prove they are not a political body.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

… who is the most cynical of them all?

Despite the desperate nature of the Orangutan plight, only two players suspected that this story would unfold the way it did before it actually happened: Greenpeace and Iceland Foods.

Greenpeace have had too many disputes for them to be unaware of the limits on broadcasting and rebadging,  and Iceland Foods saw an opportunity to take an environmental battle right to the doorstep of their sworn enemy at incredibly low cost.

We cannot avoid the fact that Iceland Foods undoubtedly knew that when they said “For clarity it's not the ASA who have banned the ad. Clearcast, the body responsible for vetting adverts in the UK decided that Rang-tan could not be aired, hence the ban”, they knew they were being economical with the truth.

Perhaps it was not just faceless bureauacrats who were involved in exploitation.

We’ve been played.

A Bleak Future for #Fakenews in Media

A willingness to tell lies to generate sensational response (and then publish a minor retraction) has been a cornerstone of tabloid reporting for decades.

But in a digital era when the Brands Become Broadcasters™, we’re entering a new phase of wilful distraction from those same brands if they are willing to play the same game.

It doesn’t matter if we feel we’re on the side of the good guys. In the final instance our industry plays a major role in designing, vetting and controlling external communications, and if even we can’t be bothered to maintain an air of social responsibility then a bleak future indeed lies ahead.

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Nick Fawbert

Nick FawbertNick Fawbert

With 25 years in the media and marketing industry, and almost 20 of those in digital marketing, Nick is one of the most experienced practitioners in the Asia marketing industry. He is Founder and CEO of Mutiny Consulting.

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