For CareerBuilder Chimps, Sadly, the Joke Is On Them

AdAge has joined the growing cry to halt the use of great apes in advertising, editorializing that despite their comic potential, "It's time to stop using them for the sake of selling product." (Memo to Adland: Enough with the Monkey Business).

The AdAge announcement came on the heels of CareerBuilder's decision to resurrect its practice of using apes to hype its job-seeking services. Debuting during the SuperBowl, CareerBuilder's latest spot features young chimps dressed in business suits and driving cars -- badly, of course.

The original CareerBuilder chimps -- Mowgli, Ellie, Bella, and Kodua -- were retired from show business in 2005 and now live with more than 40 other apes (mostly show biz veterans and former pets) at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida, whose most famous resident is Michael Jackson's former friend, Bubbles.

The use of chimps and other nonhuman primates in TV commercials is nothing new, and these spots generally generate some cheap laughs. But according to Patti Ragan, the Center's founder, there's nothing cheap about 'em.

In her article, "We Feed the CareerBuilder Chimps," Ragan points out that the annual cost to care for a great ape ranges from $14,000 to $19,000. With a working "shelf life" of only six to eight years (they become unmanageable once puberty hits) and most captive chimps living into their 40s and 50s, that's a lot of moolah. Who picks up the tab? You can bet it's not the corporations who put them to work in the first place.
As I wrote here in 2009:

"While everyone involved with a commercial -- from the network and ad agency to the actors, caterers, and animal trainers -- makes money, nothing is put aside for the animals' future. No residual checks are wending their way to Wauchula for the former stars of the CareerBuilder ads."

According to Ragan, accredited zoos rarely accept these former 'actors' due difficulty introducing them to more normal behaving zoo groups of chimpanzees (taken from their mothers in infancy and raised on movie sets, it's not surprising these chimpsters are difficult to socialize). She writes, "Many of these former 'stars' end up in roadside zoos, backyard cages, or breeder compounds. Those lucky enough to end up in an established sanctuary have to be supported by donations for the rest of their lives from people who don't know them, but care about them."

Compounding the controversy is the fact that these ads, whether funny or not, give viewers wildly distorted images of our closest nonhuman relatives, chimpanzees. Chimps are endangered, and while viewing a nature film or seeing a chimp in a zoo can inspire compassion and spur people to take conservation action, the CareerBuilder-style buffoonery is not only uninspired, it can be downright harmful to the cause. Ragan says, "Published research shows that when the public sees apes dressed up and acting in movies and advertisements, they don't perceive that these great apes are 'endangered' in the wild and therefore are less likely to send donations to groups working to save them."

The good news is that ten of the world's top fifteen ad agencies (including giants McCann Erickson, BBDO, and Young & Rubicam) have pledged to not use great apes in commercials and advertisements in the future. So why the giant step backward for CareerBuilder? And where will its new generation of acting apes end up when the cameras stop rolling?