Iceland’s ad was never “banned” – but the publicity is no bad thing

Few will have missed the current furore around the ‘banned’ Iceland ad that highlights the destruction caused by the harvesting of Palm Oil for use in everyday products such as shampoo, detergent and even foods like some chocolate, bread and ice cream.

But what not all consumers will realise is that this ad was created by Greenpeace earlier this year in a campaign led by the team here at MC&C and creative agency Mother.

We knew from the outset that we would struggle to get the powerful work – voiced by Dame Emma Thompson and featuring Rang-Tan, the displaced orangutan – onto TV screens. Any advertising from organisations deemed to have political motives or messaging – such as Greenpeace – is governed by strict regulation and as such was always highly unlikely to be approved for TV broadcast. That didn’t stop me having a go via Channel 4, but my request was declined, as expected.

Instead we led a hugely successful campaign in cinema and across a number of digital platforms as well as an integrated content partnership with The Guardian. Early results show a strong uplift in both ad recall and awareness, while 83% of people who saw the ad said it had prompted them to stop using products that contained dirty palm oil.

Fast-forward a few months and Iceland’s claims the ad was ‘banned’ by Clearcast is making headlines as the public revels in the outrage on social media and celebrities use their influence to spread the word about the injustice of the ‘ban’.

However, as with any emotionally charged issue that goes viral, some of the key elements of the story have been lost.

Nothing was banned.

The UK does not allow advertising on commercial television which is political in nature. Full stop. We knew that when we got the brief for this campaign earlier in the year. We knew it would never make it through Clearcast’s approvals system. We tried, of course, but we knew our efforts were futile.

So while Iceland is not a lobbying organisation like Greenpeace, given this was a high profile campaign not three months ago with Greenpeace branding all over it, Clearcast would have known its source – and despite claims of shock from Iceland’s newly appointed Marketing Director Neil Hayes in The Drum, he must have expected this outcome too.

But all that does not take away from the fact that this has been a fantastic PR win for Iceland – and for those championing the fight against Palm Oil – which in these days of social media and viral ads, and during the retail battle ground of Christmas, is undoubtedly a win of sorts. With more than 30m views of the ad online – and counting – and a petition calling for big brands to drop the use of dirty Palm Oil signed by more than 600,000 at the time of writing, this has been an incredible outcome not just for the anti-Palm Oil campaign but for Iceland itself.

Who knew before all this, for example, that Iceland is on a mission to become Palm Oil-free and is the only UK supermarket to achieve this? This will undoubtedly drive some brand reappraisal; Iceland aligning itself with this issue in such a public manner is commendable at a time when our TVs are being filled with aspirational emotion driving films about turkeys and presents.

What this episode will do, I hope, is push the debate about which organisations can and can’t advertise on TV into the spotlight. At a time when issues relating to sustainability and the environment are high on the public’s agenda maybe it is time to revisit the rules around issues we can give a greater voice to through commercial opportunities.

But above all, I am so delighted that the reach delivered via people getting behind the PR story is immense – 30m+ views of a film that Greenpeace simply could not achieve alone. Thank you, Iceland!

This article was first published in The Drum.