The banned Iceland ad: to be political or not to be?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“In many aspects, businesses are confronted with increasing societal pressures and demands to take responsibility for issues of public concern. This is exactly what Iceland has done in banning palm oil from their products.”  

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Iceland’s latest Christmas advert was banned from TV recently, but was subsequently viewed more than 20 million times online and declared the best Christmas ad by The Independent.

The advert – featuring an animated orangutan named ‘Rang-tan’ – focuses on the devastating effects of deforestation and the use of palm oil. It finishes with a promise that Iceland’s own-brand products are free from palm oil.

Iceland’s advert was deemed ‘too political’ because it originally appeared on the Greenpeace website. Clearcast, the reviewing body for advertisements, have drawn upon the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising as reason for the ban, stating: “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”. 

The decision made by Clearcast has sparked a national discussion, with the public asking how the advert or Iceland could be considered political. But what does “being political” mean and why does it matter?

First, although palm oil use is an environmental issue, it has political connotations with international trade amongst South-East Asian countries and their internal politics. An environmental issue can quickly become political when western countries begin to impose their trading standards on others, limiting the use of a product such as palm oil or single-use plastic.

Second, according to Clearcast, Greenpeace is a “political organisation” as it claims to “work to bring about change through political lobbying, citizen action and consumer pressure”. Many environmental organisations use ‘political lobbying’ as a means to ‘protect the earth’, but lobbying is also used frequently by businesses all over the world as a strategic action to change policy. With its use of lobbying in common with normal businesses, the question of whether Greenpeace is especially ‘political’ remains open. 

Third, is Iceland ‘political’ for broadcasting an advert from Greenpeace, or for the content and topic of the advert? Politicising business actions and strategy is not new. In the past, a major hotel brand opened branches around the world as a way to combat communism and, more recently, Ben and Jerry’s launched a campaign tackling climate change. When the US backed out of the Paris Agreement, businesses also rushed to promise that they would still commit. 

In many aspects, businesses are confronted with increasing societal pressures and demands to take responsibility for issues of public concern. This is exactly what Iceland has done in banning palm oil from their products. Deforestation is intrinsically linked to climate change and biodiversity loss – both topics that are regulated by international accords and political agendas. 

Clearly, Iceland have taken their own strategic actions (banning palm oil from their products) to the next level by involving the public, and targeting children with the tone of the advert. By using an advert made by Greenpeace rather than making their own, they have sent a message that they are linked with the organisation, further cemented by their use of an animatronic orangutan across London to publicise the advert. 

While Iceland’s decision to remove palm oil from its own-brand products has been applauded, the way they communicate about deforestation has raised questions. It’s unclear what their goal is. While the goal of Greenpeace and other NGOs is to change legislation, what is Iceland trying to achieve by focusing on deforestation? Will competitors follow suit? Whether this advert will trigger more of an effect than previous attempts at tackling deforestation remains to be seen. But perhaps we will see more businesses develop palm-oil free products or more consumers turn to palm-oil free products, which would certainly be considerable results.

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