A Chicago zoo is mounting a campaign to stop a company from airing a Super Bowl Sunday commercial featuring mischievous suit-and-tie wearing chimpanzees playing tricks on their human co-worker, saying all that monkey business proves deadly for the endangered species.
Lincoln Park Zoo officials fear images of the frolicking chimps broadcast worldwide do little to help conservation efforts, inaccurately portraying the animals as unthreatened and even as cuddly and harmless pets.
"If people see them that way they are less likely to try and conserve them," Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director of the zoo's Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, said of the commercial that shows chimps laughing at a "Kick Me" sign on the human. "Individual chimps are being harmed and wild populations are being harmed by this frivolous use of an endangered species."
Ross said he and other animal welfare advocates have been complaining to CareerBuilder.com ever since the company started using chimps in Super Bowl commercials in 2005. But this year is different because he's armed with a Duke University study that he says supports his longtime claims: Commercialized chimps dressed as people — even when running up big banana daiquiri bar tabs — makes viewers less concerned about the plight of wild chimps.
"The argument they [CareerBuilder.com] make is it doesn't matter how they're portrayed, they are helping to protect them," said Dr. Brian Hare, an assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology who led the study. "The opposite is true. These commercials are negatively affecting people's decisions about how they support conservation."
CareerBuilder.com declined to comment on the study or any suggestion that the commercials put wild chimpanzees in danger. But in a prepared statement, the Chicago-based company said the "chimpanzee stars" were not harmed and that someone from the American Humane Society watched the commercial being filmed to ensure the animals were "treated with respect."
Hare is particularly concerned about how a Super Bowl commercial — shown around the world — will persuade people in Africa, some desperately poor, to capture and sell the animals.
"This advertisement teaches them there is a market for these animals, that there are some crazy people in America and Europe who would want them as pets," he said. "Even if there isn't a market, they think there's a market."
And that, he said, could devastate the wild population of chimpanzees that has already dwindled from more than 1 million to about 100,000.
Further, he and Ross said the message that chimps make good pets is a dangerous one, as was demonstrated in 2009 when a chimpanzee attacked a Connecticut woman, ripping off her nose, lips, eyelids and hands before being shot to death by police.
Ross said he's not optimistic that CareerBuilder.com will pull the ad before this year's Super Bowl. "They already paid for this one," he said, adding that the company has never responded to any of the letters he's written them since 2005.
Helping or hurting the brand?
In fact, in an effort to drum up publicity about the ad, the company sent another email to The Associated Press trumpeting the upcoming commercial starring "CareerBuilder's beloved chimpanzees" that was back by "popular demand."
In that email, the company pointed to statistics that showed CareerBuilder.com business surged after previous Super Bowls and that its brand awareness also has grown dramatically.
But, he said in an email, maybe his concerns will find an audience of its own that the response from "a wider segment of the public ... is negative enough for [CareerBuilder.com] not to invest more money in extending the campaign with new ads."
Ross and Hare are encouraged by another conclusion of the Duke study: The commercials may not be all that effective. Contrary to Careerbuilder.com's suggestion that the commercials helped their business, Hare said people who watched the commercials reported that they found commercials with chimpanzees less interesting than those that featured athletes, music and other things.
That is not surprising to Peter Dabol, chief executive of Ace Metrix, a firm that rates the effectiveness of ads.
"These kinds of slapsticky, kind of funny ads and these ads in particular, were relatively low scoring ads even though their likeability is high," he said.
"These [CareerBuilder.com] ads performed at the bottom of the pack of all Super Bowl ads," he said. "That's typical of what we see as pure humor, cheap laugh ads."