Iceland’s Orangutan: Do we really need a cuddly toy to remind us to care?

Iceland’s Orangutan: Do we really need a cuddly toy to remind us to care?

‘Tis the season of mass consumption and this year the supermarkets, not content with outdoing each other on expensive Christmas ads, have taken the PR stunts to a whole new level with a cuddly toy war.

Last week Aldi’s cuddly carrot was causing punch-ups according to newspapers, and today Iceland have released an adorable baby ‘Rang-tan’ inspired by their banned Christmas ad, which featured the Greenpeace film ‘Rang-tan in my Bedroom’ from earlier this year.

Iceland seem to have taken it upon themselves to champion the orangutan’s cause this Christmas, to tie in with them removing palm oil from all their own food products by the end of 2018. (A welcome move as they currently have the worst rating for palm oil from Ethical Consumer).

It’s great that they broke Greenpeace’s film into the mainstream – the public outcry that the advert was banned from TV for being ‘too political’ led to it going viral on social media, breaking out of the eco echo-chamber and into public consciousness (within 24 hours of posting the advert on YouTube it had already clocked up close to 1.5m views).

They then unleashed a life-size animatronic orangutan on the streets of the UK, visiting Iceland stores and climbing London’s Christmas trees in a ‘search for a new home’ – another move borrowed from Greenpeace who parked a giant polar bear outside Shell’s London HQ in 2015.


Image Credit: Iceland


Again the stunt was widely praised for the awareness they were raising, as 56% of British adults in a recent study were found to be unaware of the effects of palm oil production on rainforests and orangutans’ habitats.

However today’s announcement that they will be selling a cuddly orangutan toy to further the cause feels like they’re cashing in, and I have questions…

  1. How much is this expected to raise? The profits (not sales revenue) from sales of the toys will be donated to charity to help real orangutans. But the actual amount of profit per toy hasn’t been released in any of the articles or on the toy’s label, so it’s unclear how much that figure actually is.
  2. They’re selling these toys for £5, which seems awfully cheap. Where were they made? Who made them? How much was that person paid? It’s highly likely they were made abroad and shipped to the UK – but how are they able to achieve that, pay everyone fairly and make enough profit to have a meaningful impact on the charity when the toys cost just £5? 
  3. What is this toy made from? What % is plastic? What will happen to it when this trend is over? How many have been produced and how many will end up in landfill as ‘just another Christmas fad’ comes and goes in January?


Unsustainable palm oil production is having a devastating impact on forests and their inhabitants, including orangutans, but so is climate change. Producing more throwaway stuff we don’t need, at a cost so cheap we don’t value it, isn’t going to help anybody.

Before we all rush to praise Iceland for this move – or head out to buy these cuddly toys and get a short-lived dopamine hit as we buy something new, let’s remember that while they might not be making any money on these toys themselves, it will get a lot more people through the door this Christmas.

They haven’t taken on the ‘rang-tan’ cause out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s having an impact on their bottom line and we have to question the motives behind this move.

I’m all for businesses with a profit and a purpose – I work with a lot of social enterprises who sell products and donate the profits to good causes. It’s a great model. But they also make their products ethically, pay people fairly and keep their carbon footprint low. They communicate the facts and figures behind the product and the cause transparently – and they ensure their donations have a meaningful impact.

As an ethical marketer, Iceland’s whole campaign doesn’t sit right with me. The focus has consistently been on their decision to remove palm oil from their own brands – without much transparency about what they will be replacing it with (which could lead to equally unsustainable production of an alternative ingredient).

They haven’t publicly talked about the Greenpeace campaign or provided much informative content about how consumers can avoid unsustainable palm oil – other than advising them to shop at Iceland.

And now it seems they may be causing problems elsewhere (labour rights, climate change, mass consumption) to cash in on the benefits of a good cause.

They have also been criticised for misleading messaging around the ‘ban’ of the advert in the first place.

Political adverts are not allowed to be shown on British television but the organisation that stopped the ad from airing, Clearcom, is not a regulator. It’s a business that assesses adverts on behalf of the four major commercial broadcasters, and a spokesperson clarified that the Iceland advert wasn’t banned because of its content, but because it was submitted on behalf of “a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature.”

While Iceland may have positioned it as a message that regulators don’t want us to hear to create greater outrage, it’s likely that the ad would never have been cleared for TV – and the marketers probably knew this from the start.

By sensationalising the ban they created catchy headlines and sparked a public outcry which encouraged millions of people to share their message on social media in a way that didn’t happen with the original Greenpeace film.

While the outcome – an increased awareness of the problem with unsustainable palm oil – may be a positive one, we still have to question if this type of marketing manipulation is ethical.

As long as marketers and advertisers continue to use psychologically manipulative techniques, they continue to take power away from consumers – keeping us in a passive place of insecurity where we believe that more consumption will make us happy.

Cause marketing done wrong is possibly the worst culprit of this, as it tricks us into believing we’re working with the brand to tackle an issue we care about – when really we’re still being manipulated into buying more and more. On the other hand, cause marketing done right can empower consumers and create genuine collaboration to make a meaningful difference.

Iceland will undoubtedly benefit from the positive brand association built through their palm oil campaign, which is one of the main reasons why brands adopt cause marketing in the first place – but we have to ask what impact this will all make to the orangutans, not just the supermarket’s Christmas profits.

This whole campaign has successfully repositioned them in the middle class, conscious consumer market which they’ve been trying to break into for a while, in a fight back against discount brands Aldi and Lidl.

Other moves to appeal to these consumers include being the first supermarket to make moves against plastic packaging and introducing a wide range of plant based food (which they’re now cutting back on as they work to eliminate palm oil).

As a PR stunt, it’s been a clever one – with the supermarket dominating more news headlines over the last few weeks than any other major retailer.

But big glossy advertising campaigns are the epitome of greenwashing, where brands spend more money to look eco-friendly than they actually are, distracting the public from the ugly truth.

If Iceland really wanted to make a meaningful impact, they would commit to donating a % of their Christmas sales revenue to the orangutan charity directly – which is the best way you can help if this cause has moved you.

Hopefully they’ll prove me wrong and will release an impact report in the new year which shows the meaningful difference their Christmas campaign has had for orangutan charities and not just their bottom line – but so far this transparency seems to be lacking. (I’ve personally reached out to Iceland several times inviting them onto the Ethical Hour podcast to discuss palm oil and so far had no response).

As consumers, it’s important to question all the marketing messages we’re being fed – even when they’re aligned to good causes. We need to get out of the mindset that we can shop our way out of this and that ‘more stuff’ is the solution. Unfortunately when we buy kids cuddly toys associated with good causes, that’s the exact message we’re sending – and we risk raising another generation with the same problems we’re facing.

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1 Comment
  • Jessica Lohmann
    Posted at 18:52h, 28 November Reply

    Beautifully written! Hear. Hear. !!

    56% of people didn’t even know about the effects of traditional palm oil production? That’s super high! If it can inspire people to think about it, it’s a good thing, but sending the wrong message is a risk. When it comes to ethics and sustainability, consistency is key. We can’t be perfect, but we have to try to stay mindful at all times.

    I hope the toys were ethically produced, Iceland makes a HUGE donation and as many children as possible learn about deforestation and the endangered orangutans now and cherish their stuffed animals forever. That’s my wish for this campaign.

    Thanks for writing this!

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