U.K. Ad Highlighting Plight of Orangutans Is Deemed Too ‘Political’ to Air

“There’s a Rang-tan in my bedroom, and I don’t know what to do,” the British actress Emma Thompson says, lending her voice to a young girl in an animated advertisement for Iceland, a food retailer in Britain. It turns out the “Rang-tan” is a baby orangutan that has lost its mother and the rain forest it once called home, and that it no longer has a place to live.

The story line might seem harmless enough, but the commercial wasn’t cleared this week to air on British TV because it was deemed to violate laws against political advertising.

The decision ignited a firestorm on social media in Britain and led to a wildly popular petition demanding that it be overturned. And to many in the United States, where more than $3 billion was spent on political advertising for the recent midterm elections, the reaction was total bafflement. Really, many wondered, can political advertising be banned?

Why did Iceland want to use the film?

The 90-second spot was originally created by Greenpeace in August to campaign against the destruction of rain forests as a result of production of palm oil, a fatty ingredient used in products as varied as lipstick, shampoo, biodiesel, pizza, chocolate, candles and detergent.

Iceland, which pledged in April to go palm-oil free by the end of this year, wanted to use the Greenpeace film for its annual Christmas campaign, and it reserved 500,000 pounds, or almost $650,000, of broadcast time.

In the spot, a wide-eyed girl has an emotional, eye-opening interaction with a baby orangutan in her bedroom. After seeing the impact of deforestation on the orangutan’s natural habitat through the animal’s eyes, the girl decides to help stop the devastation.

Who banned the film, and why?

Clearcast, a nongovernmental body that approves commercials on behalf of broadcasters, did not clear the ad, citing violations of British laws against political advertising on TV.

“Because the ad is based on material made by Greenpeace and has been promoted on the Greenpeace website for some time, Greenpeace need to demonstrate they are not a political advertiser,” Chris Mundy, the managing director of Clearcast, said in a statement on Monday.

Mr. Mundy emphasized that Clearcast did not actually ban the ad, as it does not have the authority to do so. Rather, the group did not clear the ad for broadcast, a distinction that may have been lost on the nearly 900,000 people who had signed by Wednesday the online petition asking that the ad be allowed to air.

Clearcast rulings must adhere to the U.K. Code of Broadcast Advertising, which reflects the 2003 Communications Act. That law bans political advertising on British TV.

Can political advertising really be banned?

The way free-speech rights are protected and upheld in the United States, where there is an explicit reference in the First Amendment of the Constitution, is different from Britain. (In fact, Britain does not have a single written Constitution, per se, but that’s a different story.)

Television content is governed by the 400 sections of the 2003 Communications Act, an updated version of laws regulating electronic communications, broadcasting services and other media enterprises in Britain.

The prohibition of political advertising was first enacted in the 1950s, when there were only a few holders of broadcast licenses and it was feared they would use their power in the broadcasting world to promote their own agendas.

“The regulation stopped license holders from conveying their views, and denied parties the opportunity to advertise political messages,” Andrew Scott, an associate professor of law at London School of Economics and Political Science, said by telephone.

Political ads have been banned ever since, even during election campaigns, although political parties are each allotted a specified amount of time to present their platforms. The ban on political advertisements applies to nongovernmental organizations and other groups, unless the ad is for a charitable cause.

According to a judicial case heard in the House of Lords in 2008, the rationale behind the regulation is “to protect democracy from overpowerful voices,” Mr. Scott said.

“It’s almost the flip side to what you find in the United States, where there is more of a laissez-faire approach, if you want to spend your money on buying airtime, you can,” he said. “There is a more paternalistic, condescending view reflected in this law.”

The United States once had what was called the Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949, requiring broadcasters to give equal time to opposing viewpoints, but that was done away with in the Reagan administration.

Political spending, and by extension advertising, was unleashed in two Supreme Court decisions, Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 — which allowed unlimited campaign spending outside of direct donations — and Citizens United in 2010, which allowed unlimited spending as long as it was not “coordinated” with a political campaign.

So is the Iceland ad ‘political’?

Political is in the eyes and ears of the beholder.

There is little doubt that huge areas of rain forest are being leveled to make way for palm oil plantations. According to Greenpeace, “an area the size of a football pitch is torn down in Indonesia’s rain forest every 25 seconds, with palm oil driving the destruction.”

And habitat destruction is assuredly bad for orangutans and other species. Nearly 150,000 orangutans living in Borneo, an enormous island in Indonesia, vanished from 1999 to 2015, a 16-year research effort showed. They are now an endangered species.

Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, the food retailer, said in a telephone interview that the company’s ad was neither too aligned with Greenpeace nor political.

“It has a very strong environmental message, but it’s not a political ad,” Mr. Walker said, noting that the purpose of the ad was to raise awareness of deforestation, not to condemn palm oil specifically.

But as Clearcast said, the problem is not so much what the ad contains as who made it. Greenpeace has to prove it is not a political advertiser, Clearcast said.

What happens next?

Mr. Walker said he had initially panicked over the Clearcast decision. “I thought we would be left without a Christmas campaign,” he said. But the vocal public reaction against the Clearcast decision heartened him.

“It’s been unbelievable, the response has been overwhelming,” he said. “People care.”

Iceland has sought to distance itself, and the commercial, from Greenpeace. Mr. Walker said it planned to formally present the petition — rapidly approaching one million signatures — to ask Clearcast to reconsider its decision.

In a sense, that debate has become moot. More than four million people have watched the video on YouTube in less than a week, and Iceland is getting enormous amounts of attention even without the ad showing on TV.

And that attention can lead to other opportunities, including ones with a Christmas theme. Iceland plans to bring the endangered species issue straight to the streets of London, where it will set loose a life-size, robotic orangutan among the hordes of Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street in London and other locations.

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