Reports about the ‘banning’ of Iceland’s 2018 Christmas advertisement resulted in it becoming one of the most viewed Christmas advertisements ever on social media. The advertisement itself – a Greenpeace-produced animated critique of palm oil production, from the perspective of a young orangutan – was reportedly banned for being ‘too political’. The company’s decision to publicise the ban and host the advertisement on their own YouTube channel,resulted in their campaign gaining visibility in both the national and international media (with news outlets including CNN and the BBC reporting not only the ban itself but the subsequent levels of visibility it attained). The Telegraph, for instance, offered an overview of celebrities who had tweeted about the advertisement, The Guardian ran a series of opinion pieces criticising the ban, and The Sun reported Iceland’s subsequent sale of cuddly Orangutans to raise funds for orphaned animals.
These events resonate with the concept of ‘spectacular environmentalisms’: a term engaged with by Goodman et al in a 2017 edition of Environmental Communication in reference to highly visible, mediated, forms of environmentalism, where commercial imperatives jostle with questions of environmental and social justice. Iceland’s advertisement reflects this ambivalence. Here, for instance, while the animation was originally produced by Greenpeace, it should not be forgotten that it is simultaneously a promotional campaign for Iceland and the environmentalism it offers operates within certain constraints (hence its emphasis on ethical consumerism, rather than pushing for more radical changes in food systems).
Iceland’s orangutan also, however, elucidates that analysis of the content of spectacular environmentalisms, and how this intersects with questions of political economy, needs to be coupled with attention to the media ecologies through which these texts gain purchase. Palm oil has long been the focus of environmental campaigns, most notably Greenpeace’s 2010 online campaign targeting Nestlé, which also gained wider publicity after the corporation attempted to force YouTube to withdraw it. The visibility afforded to Iceland’s advertisement seems to mark another moment where social media has enabled environmentalist concerns to gain visibility in the mainstream media, this time due to offering an alternative platform for the advertisement to be circulated.
Like spectacular environmentalism itself, uses of social media in protest requires navigating a number of frictions between, for instance, anti-corporate sentiment and the commercial orientation of the platforms themselves. While social media enabled the banned video to be shared – in ways that both drew attention to the issue and raised critical questions about the prohibition of ‘political’ content – this resistance also constituted a PR opportunity for the supermarket. Clearcast (the body who clear UK advertisements prior to broadcast to ensure they adhere to codes of practice) even accused Iceland of deliberately creating an advertisement that would contravene regulations, as a ban would effectively guarantee the video would go viral on social media.
Iceland’s advertisement, therefore, illustrates the need to conceptualise how longstanding frictions associated with the content of spectacular environmentalisms are overlain by a further series of frictions fostered by contemporary media ecologies, in ways that amplify the messiness of these texts.
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