Iceland: the latest surprising brand-as-activist

In one of the more unexpected headlines to appear during the Christmas ad season, Iceland has seen its festive ad – a reworking of a previous campaign by Greenpeace – banned for breaching political advertising rules

The Christmas ads are upon us and with them comes both joy and irritation from the public. The latter usually follows a familiar script every year: “It’s too early for Christmas ads!”, “Yuck, these ads are way too sentimental” or “Why does every ad have a soundtrack like the John Lewis one now?”

Joining the commentary this year though is a surprising addition, with Iceland – yep folks, the supermarket store Iceland – seeing its Christmas ad banned for being too political.

The ad sees the chain undertake a reworking of a film from Greenpeace that was first screened earlier this year and addresses the destruction of rainforests – and the devastating effect this has on orangutans, which are now classified as critically endangered – by palm oil growers. For the Iceland version, shown below, Greenpeace’s original film is rebranded with the supermarket’s logo and a short text on how it is removing palm oil from its own label products “until all palm oil causes zero rainforest destruction”.

Iceland Christmas ad

It’s a confusing story in many respects. Firstly, who knew that Iceland was political anyway? Rather like Lush’s surprising and controversial foray into activism in a shop window display earlier this year, for many shoppers the new ad was likely the first glimpse of the brand taking a stance over an issue. So the fact that the spot has been banned before we’d even taken on board that message adds a level of drama we never would have expected to come out of the supermarket chain.

Secondly, the repurposing of the previous film is pretty unexpected too. And it is this tie up with Greenpeace that has led to the broadcast ban, with Clearcast, the body in charge of approving ads before release to the public, stating: “The creative submitted to us is linked to another organisation who have not yet been able to demonstrate compliance [with the political rules of the BCAP code].”

It’s odd for a brand to take the messaging of another organisation and use it with barely any adaptation, though certainly cost-effective. Plus the ad is appealing, with charming animation and a voiceover from Emma Thompson. And from Greenpeace’s point of view, it was likely seen as a good opportunity to reach a wider audience with their message.

Original Greenpeace film

And it’s also likely that everyone involved knew it would grab the attention of the press, with a ban only making the journey from release to newspaper thinkpiece swifter. The ban has certainly fuelled defence of Iceland’s position across social media and the press, where the spot is being described as “brave and necessary”, and will likely mean it gets far more views and attention online than it would have on TV (the YouTube version has already received twice the views of the original Greenpeace film).

As we have written about in CR in recent years, brands are increasingly seeing politics and activism as a quick means to attract both headlines and offer up a sense of identity in a highly competitive market.

Consumers are of course always wise to be wary of what the true motivations of a brand are when co-opting political or activist messages but it’s hard not to cheer at any act by a major brand that actively supports environmental issues. Plus the furore today proves, once again, how taking such a stance (especially if it truly runs through a brand’s ethos) can also prove very attractive to customers too.