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The Realities behind the Iceland Christmas Ad

View profile for Paul Herbert
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A version of this article appeared in The Times.

“Iceland Christmas Ad: Petition to show it on TV hits 670k” is one of many recent headlines reporting Iceland’s failure to secure clearance for the broadcast of its Christmas ad. The Ad features Rang-tan, a young cartoon orangutan who sets up camp in a child’s bedroom in order to escape the carnage caused by the destruction of its jungle habitat for palm oil cultivation. Originally created by Greenpeace, the cartoon was adopted by Iceland and converted into a TV commercial with a promise by Iceland to remove palm oil from its own label products.

In October the Ad was submitted for clearance to Clearcast. Clearcast had to consider whether the Ad was being submitted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are “wholly or mainly of a political nature”. Mindful of the provenance of the cartoon, Clearcast requested evidence that Greenpeace was not such a body. None was forthcoming and thus clearance could not be given. A media storm ensued.

Political advertising has been banned in the UK since the inception of commercial broadcasting. An advertisement contravenes this prohibition if it is inserted on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature. This can include “influencing public opinion on a matter of public controversy”. The rationale is based on the perception that the power and pervasiveness of broadcast media over other media (historically at least) was such that it could give an unfair advantage to those who could afford to promote their political views over the air waves, and, as a result, unfairly distort the democratic process.

There are plenty of precedents for the Iceland/Greenpeace decision: The Make Poverty History (“MPH”) Campaign in 2005 included the line “Somebody dies avoidably through poverty every 3 seconds”. A caption implored “Make Poverty History” and encouraged viewers to lobby government directly. MPH’s objectives were adjudged to be directed towards political ends for these purposes.

The ban has also been challenged in the Courts, unsuccessfully, by disgruntled advertisers, most recently in a case that has parallels with the Iceland/Greenpeace Ad. It concerned Animal Defenders International (ADi), an organisation which campaigns against the commercial exploitation of animals. In 2005 ADi launched a campaign  directed against the use of primates in television advertising which  included a 30” commercial of a chained girl accompanied by the message: “a chimp has the mental age of a four year old”; “although we share 98% of our genetic make-up they are still caged and abused to entertain us”… The commercial was declined on the grounds that ADi’s objectives were wholly or mainly of a political nature. ADi appealed but the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ultimately upheld the ban by a wafer thin majority of 9 to 8.

There is no doubt that the ban on political broadcast advertising is extremely broad in scope. Is it really justifiable in the modern age, especially where the power and influence of broadcast media are increasingly eclipsed by the plethora of options and opinions presented online? Whatever the extent of its decline relative to other media, broadcasting is still regarded as being sufficiently powerful to warrant special treatment.

Yet the irony is all too apparent here: it is social media which has garnered the substantial support of the Iceland/Greenplace Ad. And it is social media where it is perfectly lawful for the Ad to be published. The ban only applies to traditional linear TV.

This guide is for general information and interest only and should not be relied upon as providing specific legal advice. If you require any further information about the issues raised in this article please contact the author or call 0207 404 0606 and ask to speak to your usual Goodman Derrick contact.