Opinion

Super Bowl commercials: What happens to those CareerBuilder chimps?

They're not monkeys. They're chimpanzees with short working lives in entertainment, after which they can't be returned to zoos or the wild. Lucky ones end up in sanctuaries, needing care for the next 40 years. Major ad agencies have pledged not to use great apes. Why won't CareerBuilder?

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CareerBuilder released their newest advertisement this weekend during the Super Bowl – a parking lot scene with a frustrated employee surrounded by bumbling colleagues (played by chimpanzees). Like many Super Bowl commercials, the 30-second spot has generated plenty of post-game buzz rating its cleverness, humor, and impact. But this ad has also brought on plenty of outrage, and rightly so.

Even before the commercial aired, thousands of people (and several animal welfare groups) concerned about the use and exploitation of chimpanzees for TV commercials wrote and signed petitions and voiced their opposition to the company.

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I have a special interest in this situation. The chimpanzee youngsters (Ellie, Mowgli, Bella, and Koda) used in CareerBuilder’s first round of comic commercials shown during the 2005 Super Bowl, Emmy Awards, and Academy Awards were retired from acting and are all here now at the Center for Great Apes, as rescued primates needing sanctuary care for the rest of their lives – some 40 years or more.

What happens after short working life?

Chimpanzees used in commercials are mostly infants and juveniles who were taken away from their mothers (a traumatic act for mother and infant) so they can be trained to perform for entertainment and advertising. This changes their futures forever. Since they usually only have a working “shelf life” of about 6 to 8 years (while still juveniles), they rarely can be handled and worked as adolescents and adults, and most often end up discarded out of show business.

Accredited zoos won’t usually accept performing or human-raised chimpanzees because they are difficult to mix with the zoos’ more naturally behaving groups. Many of these former “stars” end up in roadside zoos, backyard cages, or breeder compounds. Those lucky enough to end up in an established sanctuary have to be supported for the rest of their lives by donations from people who don’t know them, but care about them.

The public is more aware today than six years ago of what the cost is to these intelligent great apes used as pets and entertainers (simply to make us laugh or pitch sales for a company). Today, at least 15 advertising agencies, including ten of the top 15 agencies in the world, and the top three agencies in this country (McCann Erickson, BBDO, and Young & Rubicam) have pledged not to use great apes in commercials and advertisements any longer. And the list is growing.

Portraying chimpanzees as silly hurts wild population

CareerBuilder has said in a press release that its business has not been as good as when they used chimpanzees for their ads. Richard Castellini, the Chief Marketing Officer for CareerBuilder, said people ask, “When are the monkeys coming back?” Chimpanzees are not monkeys (they are great apes), as the ad would have the public believe. CareerBuilder has created an image that is inaccurate and uneducated. Chimpanzees are highly intelligent – gifted, in fact. The premise of the television commercial is a hapless drone whose co-workers are chimpanzees, thus likening a bad job to working with idiots. Characterizing chimpanzees as idiots is simply incorrect.

CareerBuilder’s misinformation and equating chimpanzees with “monkeys” is bad enough, but disseminating such an image actually has a real and devastating impact on the chimpanzee population. Does the company realize that promoting its business is negatively affecting the status of chimpanzees in the wild?

Studies and surveys have shown that when the public sees chimpanzees dressed up and acting in movies, TV shows, and advertisements, they don’t really perceive that these great apes are “endangered” in the wild in Africa. A recent article in Science Magazine by primate researchers, including Jane Goodall, affirms: “Depictions of chimpanzees as caricatures can lead people to think these animals are not endangered, and this is a problem for conservation and welfare efforts.”

If the public doesn’t see chimpanzees as needing help (and on the brink of extinction, which they are), then they are less likely to send donations to groups working to save them or to take steps to protect them.

Treated well during filming, but after?

Mr. Castellini also said in a press release that the company “thought this was good timing to bring the chimpanzees out of retirement.” Well, the chimpanzees won’t be coming out of retirement! The original CareerBuilder chimpanzees from the first series of ads in the CareerBuilder campaign are now adolescents and too big and dangerous to work around people. So CareerBuilder probably had to find a new generation of youngsters, pulled again from mothers and trained to perform in these ads.

CareerBuilder’s Facebook page says that the chimpanzees were treated well in the making of the commercials. That’s good, but that’s also not the only issue. How will these chimpanzees – and the entire wild chimpanzee population – be treated afterward? Actor chimpanzees have a short working life as juveniles, but a very long adult life, where they will need safe and enriching care for decades. Consider, too, the fact that portrayals of chimpanzees in this manner (as funny or cute) affect the overall efforts to protect chimpanzees in the wild. Such a situation should be of concern to everyone, not just “animal advocates."

Caring for these retired chimpanzees doesn’t come cheaply. Even if corporations like CareerBuilder make a donation during the filming of commercials to help with the future care of the chimpanzees they use, it in no way covers what the future costs to care for these great apes will actually be. Seven North American sanctuaries for retired entertainment, pet, and research chimpanzees today all find the costs of care range between $14,000 to $19,000 a year for each ape.

When the first four chimpanzees were used in CareerBuilder’s 2005 ads, they were 2 years (Koda), 4 years (Mowgli), 6 years (Bella), and 7 years old (Ellie). Since they could all live to the age of 50 or more, you can do the math and see that it could take millions of dollars to provide care for the actors that sold CareerBuilder to the public.

A better way to pitch products

In this day and age, computer graphic imaging (CGI) is an amazing way to tell a story and show comic antics without affecting the lives of these baby chimpanzees used as actors. C’mon CareerBuilder! Please join with the responsible corporations and advertising agencies that can find ways to pitch products and services without exploiting great apes. Please use your talent, wealth, and success to produce entertaining commercials that don’t have such a sad impact on chimpanzees.

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the company chose to donate some of the millions of dollars it pays for TV Super Bowl advertising time to wildlife protection projects in Africa that are struggling so desperately to save chimpanzees in the wild? It should at least provide a real retirement fund for the first four chimpanzees that made them so famous.

Now that would make me want to call CareerBuilder for services.

Patti Ragan is the founder of the Center for Great Apes.

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