First posted 22.07.13

Earlier this month, a 37-year-old chimpanzee called Louis died at Twycross Zoo. He was famous for being a “PG Tips chimp” in adverts parodying James Bond. Most news outlets reported this as a minor interest story, linking to the original adverts (see above) so we could all watch the chimps in wigs. Some conservationists I know muttered darkly about the ethics of using animals in adverts, but I didn’t see any discussion about this in the mainstream media.

 Anyway, this reminded me of some interesting research in how media portrayal of chimpanzees affects public perceptions of conservation.

There are two possible ways that people could react to chimps in the media. The familiarity hypothesis predicts that as animals become familiar and human-like, we will empathise with them, and are more likely to take an interest in their conservation. It is true that people are more likely to donate to causes involving species that they know about, and the well-established principle of  flagship species in conservation fundraising relies on this.

The distortion hypothesis, on the other hand, maintains that if animals are portrayed in human settings then people will begin to get the impression that they’re not really that rare after all.

In 2011 an experiment was designed to test these hypotheses. Four researchers from Duke University (North Carolina) set up a fake marketing study, and showed 165 people various commercials. In amongst these decoy commercials were one of three chimpanzee clips:

  • an advert depicting a chimpanzee in human clothing in an office environment
  • a broadcast from the Jane Goodall Institute about the threats to wild chimpanzees
  • a video of wild chimps just doing what chimps do (the control group)

The participants were then given a survey with lots of questions. A few of these related to chimpanzees, and were used to assess what effect the clips had had.

 The data absolutely supported the distortion hypothesis. People who had watched the chimp adverts were less likely to think that chimps are endangered, and showed less concern for the welfare of the chimps. The researchers say:

“Perhaps most alarming is the finding that over 35% of those watching entertainment condition thought private citizens should have the right to own a chimpanzee as a pet – in comparison to 10% in the other conditions.”

They go on to discuss that this may be partly because people believed that the chimps used in the adverts were adults, whereas in reality no advertiser would use a mature chimp – they’re large, dangerous, and definitely not as cute.

 This research backs up previous work in which people who had been shown an image of a chimp in an office or near a human were more likely to perceive wild populations of chimpanzees as not endangered, compared to those who’d been shown a chimp in the wild or in a zoo. These people too were much more likely to think that a chimp would make an appealing pet.

Example images from the study:              

Example image from the study
Example image from the study


In conclusion, we should all think a bit more about animals in the media. As any zookeeper will tell you, most of us are pretty misinformed about great apes, their behaviour and their conservation status. Adverts and films with humanised chimpanzees in are distorting people’s views of these animals, and are potentially detrimental to conservation efforts.

 And all this probably applies to that ridiculous monkey in The Big Bang Theory, too.