Chimps Shouldn’t Be Entertainers

A new study provides evidence that seeing chimps in commercials makes us care less about them as a species

It only took five tries, but his version of Hamlet is much better.
It only took five tries, but his version of Hamlet is much better. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

You’ve probably laughed at a commercial or television show featuring a chimpanzee dressed like a little kid. They’re cute animals, so how could you resist? But a new study in PLoS ONE provides startling evidence that turning chimps into entertainers makes us care less about them as a species.

Researchers at Duke University had human participants watch a series of television ads (for products like tooth paste and soda) in which they included either a commercial for chimp conservation featuring Jane Goodall, a bit of footage of chimpanzees in the wild or a commercial that had a chimp dressed like a human. The participants were then given a questionnaire that asked about the suitability of chimps as pets, their presence in the media and their status in the wild. They were also asked if they would like to purchase a soda or a tube of toothpaste or to donate to the Red Cross or a conservation organization.

People who saw the chimps dressed as humans were more likely to view the animals as being suitable as pets or in entertainment and were the least likely to donate to the conservation organization. The researchers write:

Advertisers only use easily manageable young chimpanzees in commercials but based on our survey viewers believe these chimpanzees were adults—leaving them unaware of how dangerous these animals can be when fully grown. Such a frivolous use of chimpanzees also leads those watching chimpanzee commercials to overestimate their population size in the wild. Clearly, chimpanzee commercials violated participants’ expectations about how perilously endangered animals are treated. This confusion likely explains why those watching commercials including entertainment chimpanzees donated the least of their experimental earnings to a conservation charity.

“Nobody has measured this sort of thing before, but clearly shows that the portrayal of endangered species on television can alter viewers’ behaviors and decrease one’s willingness to donate,” says graduate student Kara Schroepfer, the study’s lead author. “This is a clear indication that we need to reevaluate media practices and conservation priorities.”

And the impact of using chimps as entertainers goes beyond the money issue. If people think that chimps make good pets—which is seriously misguided—then more young chimpanzees may be captured in the wild, their mothers killed, so they can be sold into the pet trade. And there is a sad history of chimps being abandoned or killed when they get too old and too dangerous to be cute.

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