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Cute TV Chimps May Harm Their Wild Brethren

12 October 2011 5:00 pm
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Homer Sykes Archive/Alamy

Sad sight. Seeing dressed-up chimps, such as the one in this tea advertisement, made people less likely to donate to a conservation charity.

Showing chimpanzees dressed in clothes and clowning around in films and commercials may not be particularly dignified, but it fosters sympathy for the species and makes people want to protect them in the wild. At least that's what some in the entertainment industry like to think. But a new study from a team of scientists and marketing experts shows just the opposite. People who watch such shows or ads actually come away thinking that chimpanzees are abundant in the wild and don't need further protection, the researchers report in a study published today in PLOS ONE. In reality, of course, chimpanzees are endangered and face an uncertain future in Africa due to habitat destruction, disease, and hunting.

Wild chimpanzees cannot be imported into the United States, but those that are born in captivity here can still be purchased as pets and used in biomedical research and entertainment. Chimps have a long and highly controversial history in advertising too, helping sell everything from tea and soft drinks to cars.

"We wanted to test this argument that showing chimpanzees with people and in human settings actually makes people more sympathetic to their plight," says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and one of the study's authors. Hare had heard filmmakers express this opinion while helping with two television documentaries about chimpanzees.

To test their argument, Kara Schroepfer, one of Hare's graduate students and the study's lead author, asked 165 people to fill out a questionnaire about the status of chimpanzees in the wild after watching a series of television ads. The ads showed products such as toothpaste and soft drinks. Mixed in with the ads was one of three short films about chimpanzees. One showed Jane Goodall delivering a message about the need to protect chimpanzees; another was simply footage of chimpanzees in the wild; and the third showed chimpanzees wearing clothes and "acting" in ads intended to be humorous.

After watching the ads, the participants filled out a questionnaire that assessed their understanding of the status of wild chimpanzees. The scientists' analysis of the results showed absolutely "no support for the familiarity hypothesis," Hare says. Indeed, more than 35% of those who watched the humorous ads came away thinking that individuals should have the right to own a chimpanzee as a pet, compared with only 10% of those who watched the two other films. The participants were also given the opportunity to purchase one of the products they had seen or contribute part of their compensation for the experiment to a conservation charity; those who watched the entertainment chimps were the least likely to donate.

The team's findings add to the evidence that using chimpanzees and other primates in entertainment "is more than just frivolous amusement; it really changes the way the public understands the species and should be discontinued," says Stephen Ross, a chimpanzee researcher at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. The study adds to "a growing body of work that indicates that conservation is directly tied to public perception," says Doug Cress, a spokesperson with the Great Apes Survival Partnership in Nairobi. He and others in conservation "have always felt that the use of [great apes and primates] in entertainment somehow undermined" preservation efforts. "After all, who could look at a chimpanzee on a unicycle and comprehend its real situation?"

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