My choice of a communication campaign is a Christmas television advert from UK supermarket chain ‘Iceland’ that features an animation linking rainforest destruction to palm oil products: Iceland Ad on YouTube
The advert was highly controversial; it wasn’t cleared for broadcasting (effectively, banned) yet secured millions of online views. The ban wasn’t due to the actual content of the advert but because Greenpeace, who produced the animation, is a political organisation, and the UK prohibits political advertising.
The ruling was widely criticised, generating significant social and traditional media interest. Celebrities and politicians alike spoke out in its favour and an online petition secured over a million signatures. The controversy certainly seemed to benefit the campaign (some questioning whether Iceland predicted this chain of events). Iceland’s MD reported that this became ‘the most watched Christmas advert ever’, with others acknowledging its ‘massive success.’ Extensive media reporting surely meant that many consumers were reached who would never actively read Greenpeace material. Moreover, Iceland is a ‘budget’ supermarket; helping to drive the important message that sustainability isn’t just a choice for wealthy consumers who can afford to pay more for guilt-free products.
Onto the advert… To be applauded, there is clearly a business commitment behind the campaign; the removal of palm oil from Iceland’s own-brand products. Although, the question of those products containing palm oil that they do continue to sell remains. At what point should companies be considered credible sustainability champions? On one hand, companies could always do more despite their best intentions; on the other hand, ‘green-washing’ is prevalent. You can’t judge a company’s commitment to sustainability through a single advertising campaign. Associations and partnerships with organisations, such as Greenpeace, are an important source of credibility, but with the plethora and complexity of sustainability issues, there are always questions of how they address other issues, not covered by public campaigns. This is why corporate reporting is so important.
The content of the advert itself was wonderfully emotive, alongside a clear and concise articulation of the issue. It seems to have captured each of Aristotle’s ‘rhetorical proofs’: ethos, pathos, logos. Somewhat ironically, the beauty of the advert is in part because it feels so completely un-political. Although the CISL reading recognises that the general public should not be treated as ‘one amorphous mass’; across cultures, ages and political persuasions, who could watch this advert and not conclude that palm oil is a bad thing?
But it turns out that the content was as controversial as the ban itself… Many other crops and activities are (more?) responsible for rainforest destruction and many, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil argued that a commitment to use only responsibly-sourced palm oil would have been better than a ban. Perhaps Iceland should have done more listening as part of its communication strategy. Sustainability issues are, by their nature, complicated, and it’s frustrating to see them being reduced to simple decisions and trade-offs in public campaigns. But, messages do have to be presented and packaged in a certain way to reach a wide and general audience. What’s the right balance?
Overall, I judge that the advert was successful in raising general awareness and understanding about a critically important issue. Whether it actually changed consumer behaviour we do not know. It also demonstrated to business that taking a risk in adopting an active and public position on a key sustainability challenge, complex as it is, can bring benefits.
A campaign alone however is not enough, and whilst recognising this important step forward, this fact should not be lost or forgotten in the midst of a great advert.
 https://rspo.org/news-and-events/news/the-rspo-disagrees-with-icelands-decision-to-ban-palm-oil-products and https://act.ran.org/leading_brands_progressive_palm_oil_producers_and_ngos_confirm_deforestation_free_palm_oil_is_available_to_european_market