Monday, 24 October 2011

Why chimpanzees should not be in the entertainment industry

Because chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are an endangered species, all African countries in which the animals live have forbidden their capture and trade as food or pets. Despite this, there are an estimated 300 chimps in private households and zoos in the United States. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service makes this possible by double-listing chimpanzees on the endangered species list: While wild-born chimps are considered endangered, captive-born individuals are only listed as threatened, which allows them to be traded for use as pets, "actors" in the entertainment industry, and test subjects for biomedical research.

(A young chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes. They may look cute and innocent when they are young, but can grow up to be quite fierce.)

In the wild, chimpanzee populations are threatened by habitat destruction, disease, and hunting. A variety of conservation programs are aimed at combating these issues, but many researchers feel that their efforts are undermined by the use of chimps in the entertainment industry. Specifically, they feel that use of chimpanzees in movies, advertisements, and other visual media sends the message not only that these animals have safe and healthy wild populations, but also that it is appropriate to consider them as pets. This idea is known as the "distortion hypothesis," since it suggests that entertainment chimpanzees distort public perceptions. Those who are in favor of continuing to use chimpanzees in the media counter these arguments with the "familiarity hypothesis," the idea that any chimpanzee imagery is helpful to conservation efforts since it keeps the animals in the public consciousness and makes people see chimps in a favorable light.

To investigate which of these hypotheses has more support, researchers from Duke University developed a faux marketing study that appeared to participants as though it was investigating their attitudes about 4 non-chimpanzee-related TV commercials. In reality, it was designed to determine participants' responses to a chimpanzee-related test stimulus embedded in the video containing the other 4 clips. The actual test stimulus was 1 of 3 things: a public service announcement about chimpanzees delivered by the Jane Goodall Institute (the "PSA" treatment); a baseline description of chimpanzee biology (the "baseline" treatment); or a series of three commercials featuring chimpanzees (the "entertainment" treatment). 

 (An early example of a chimp "actor." One of the most common chimpanzee entertainment motifs is chimps dressed as humans, and/or located in anthropogenic environments.)

Once participants had viewed the video, they were asked to complete a survey that addressed attitudes towards, and knowledge of, chimpanzees, focusing on 3 major topics: the suitability of chimps as pets, the animals' presence in the media, and facts about their survival in the wild. At the end of the study, participants--who were paid $10 for their time--were given an opportunity to use their paycheck to purchase any of the items featured in the commercials, or to donate money to a conservation organization (either the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, which works with chimpanzees, or the American Red Cross). 

This entire study design was repeated for a second round of experimentation in which the survey was reformatted and reworded, allowing the researchers to gain more information about the participants--including whether they had guessed the purpose of the study. An extra question was added in which the participants were asked to indicate how they would split a hypothetical $50 donation between the American Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund; then, during the actual donation period, participants could use their study participation paycheck either to purchase Coca-Cola (which was featured in one of the non-chimp commercials) or to contribute to the African Wildlife Foundation.

Across both rounds of the experiment, participants in the PSA treatment were more likely to indicate that chimpanzees were not suitable as pets. These individuals were also more likely to correctly identify wild chimpanzee populations as endangered. In the first round of the experiments, 10 people donated money to charities. Only 3 of these individuals chose to give to the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force--and all 3 were in the PSA treatment. Similar results were recorded during the second round of treatment. PSA participants were most generous in their hypothetical contributions to the WWF; individuals in the baseline treatment came next, and those in the entertainment treatment were least likely to support the environmental group.  Among people who donated actual money from their participation paychecks, individuals in the public service announcement treatment were twice as likely to give money, and gave twice as much when they did.

(A more realistic, but less common, view of chimps--wild animals that are capable of doing severe damage to humans.)

These results offer strong support for the distortion hypothesis, and none for the familiarity hypothesis. Over a third of individuals exposed to the entertainment treatment felt that private citizens should have the right to own a chimp as a pet; only 10% of people in the other 2 treatments shared this sentiment. Survey results indicated that most viewers did not realize that entertainment chimps are those who are young and easily manipulated--or that these animals could grow up to be quite dangerous. Another interesting finding of the surveys was that viewers favor commercials featuring music, but actively dislike commercials featuring chimps in human situations. This, in combination with concerns over animal welfare and the negative conservation implications of using entertainment chimpanzees, suggests that marketing efforts should steer clear of ape-related advertisements.

On a broader scale, the study indicates that the public is easily swayed by the subtle undertones of chimpanzee imagery. This is despite the fact that scientists and conservationists have actively broadcasted the message that chimpanzees are endangered and deserve protection. Thus, it is important to carefully consider the content of entertainment images and assess whether they will have negative impacts on important policy issues. Perhaps conservationists might even use the pliability of their audience to their advantage, designing more effective pro-biodiversity propaganda.

For supplementary images associated with this post, please visit the Anthrophysis pin board at Pinterest.

Schroepfer, K.K., Rosati, A.G., Chartrand, T., and Hare, B. 2011. Use of "entertainment" chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status. PLoS ONE 6(10):e26048.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

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