A number of years ago, a far-reaching, all-powerful telecommunications company, one of the big players in an ever-dwindling market of consumer options, launched a highly effective ad campaign featuring computer-generated images of anthropomorphized animals being playful, friendly and full of energy.
You know the game. If it looks soft and cuddly, had big eyes, and was familiar to children and adults alike — lion cubs, panda bears, giraffes, baby hippos, you name it — it’s good enough for the phone company.
Cheetahs, the fastest of fast cats, are especially prized for a tech company looking for ways to brag about its high-speed Internet connections, regardless of whether that service is any faster than its competitors or not.
There were a handful of complaints at the time, from a handful of environmental groups and animal-rights campaigners, that ad agencies and tech companies were making money off the images of endangered animals, without paying any of the profits back into the conservation community. (It’s a sign of the modern times we live, and how much more savvy and technically sophisticated audiences are today, that accusations of animal cruelty are virtually non-existent: Today’s audiences assume that if you see a cute animal on the TV doing something cute, it’s a digital manipulation, not actually real.)
Naturally, the argument that ad agencies should give something — anything — for the conservation of animals they depict in their ads fell on deaf ears.
Fell on deaf ears, that is, until earlier this year, BBC legend David Attenborough, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Australian advertising production company Finch, Finch founder Rob Galluzzo and composer-filmmaker Christopher Nelius.
Signatories to the fund already include the advertising company BBDO, marketing research and TV-ratings measurement firm Nielsen and Mars Inc., makers of the Mars chocolate bar and Wrigley’s chewing gum, among other products.
UNDP goodwill ambassador and Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau announced the new initiative at June’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity called The Lion’s Share, based on the idea that advertisers pay into a fund when they use animals in advertisements. They would contribute a token percentage of their media budget, “spend” in ad-agency parlance, to conservation and animal welfare projects.
The suggested amount is picayune — 0.5% of the budget of any ad featuring an animal. The amount may sound picayune, but as anyone who’s managed a family budget knows, pennies add up.
“The Lion’s Share shows that by making a small difference today, we have an opportunity to make an unprecedented difference tomorrow,” Attenborough told the UNDP get-together in Cannes this past June. “Animals are in 20% of all advertisements we see, yet they do not always get the support they deserve.
The Lion’s Share aims to raise $100m a year within three years. The money will be invested in a range of conservation and animal welfare programs implemented and supervised under the auspices of the UN and a handful of selected NGOs.
Cynics will immediately cite the c-word — corruption — as misuse of funds from charitable donations is practically a spectator sport these days, but UNDP officials and assorted NGOs will be actively involved in seeing that the funds go where they’re supposed to.
Finch founder Galluzzo, who originated the idea with Nelius, noted that nine out of the 10 most popular animals we see in commercial ads are endangered or threatened. Just as one example, there are 400,000 wild elephants left in the world — but just 7,000 cheetahs. If that.
The Lion’s Share — and, for the record, lions aren’t exactly thriving either — is big-time stuff, in no small part because of the active involvement of the UN. The Lion’s Share is designed to work hand-in-hand with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals programme, the global organization’s universal call to end poverty and re-nourish the planet. Helping to preserve animal habitat — thereby helping the animals themselves — is key to achieving the UN’s stated Goal No. 14, Life Underwater, and Goal No. 15, Life on Land.
The announcement in Cannes featured some star power, but not the kind onlookers may have expected. Coster-Waldau, familiar to fans of Game of Thrones as Jaime Lannister, was there to introduce not himself but Collette Ngobeni, a commando in South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, the Black Mambas.
Ngobeni told festivalgoers and UNDP delegates that the Lion’s Share is a worthy, worthwhile initiative because it’s designed to help grassroots programmes like the Mambas anti-poaching unit, and not the big NGO’s with their multiple layers of bureaucracy.
“We’re working hard every day to prevent poaching,” she said simply.
Later in the day, Coster-Waldau did a series of interviews with the US TV networks on the Cannes waterfront.
They wanted to talk about Game of Thrones; he wanted to talk about wildlife conservation and The Lion’s Share.
“It’s our responsibility to safeguard all life on our planet,” he explained. “We can’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, as launched by the UN and world leaders to protect the future and ensure prosperity for all people, without preserving natural habitats for all living beings, from wildlife to marine life.”
Facing a US TV news crew from CNBC, his message was more succinct.
“It’s a simple, brilliant idea,” he said.
Simple. Brilliant. Reason for hope.