Ads Targeting Monkeys: Sex Sells!

BlogHer Original Post

So, two ad execs walk into a bar, order drinks and meet a primatologist. "Hey," one says, "How do we make effective ads to market Jell-O to monkeys?" It's one of those rare jokes that includes its own punchline. Admittedly, I added the saloon setting but the rest is all true, proving once again that sciency news bits are often ripe for comedic picking, as The Colbert Report can attest.

It began, as so much brilliant weirdness does, at a TED talk. In July 2010, the two aforementioned ad execs, Keith Olwell and Elizabeth Keihner, sat in the TEDGlobal audience (Oxford, UK) surely awaiting the next scheduled enlightenment, when noted Yale University primatologist, Laurie Santos, walked onstage.

Santos then delivered a thoughtful rumination on how monkeys can evidently grasp basic economics. In fact, she declared, they behave very similarly to humans when it comes to money matters - not a compliment to the monkeys, as it turns out. (Larceny broke out in the monkey cage too.)

"The capuchin monkeys working with economist Keith Chen and psychologist Laurie Santos know a good bargain when they see one. They use metal chips as money, buying bits of apple or cucumber from humans, and they seem to know what they're doing. When the researchers make apple cheaper than cucumber - offering more food for the same number of chips - the capuchins opt for the better-value food, as any savvy shopper would."

--New Scientist article on Santos' work by Mark Buchanan

Soon after, an odd team was formed. Santos, Olwell and Keihner got together to launch an unprecedented experiment - in advertising, science and general weirdness. The idea was based upon a simple question: "If monkeys could be 'consumers', could they also be affected by targeted advertising?"

Officially launched at the Cannes Lions last month (a creative festival for the ad industry), the project is entitled, "Monkey See" and unites the efforts of Yale University and Proton Studio, Olwell and Keihner's ad firm.

"Never before have such a venerable institution and a team of advertising professionals come together with such a goal: 'Determine where advertising has innate primate responses, and explore.' ….Everyone knows sex sells, so the team is starting with sex in advertising."

--Project description, Cannes Lions 2011 schedule

Working with brown capuchins, the plan is to use two different colors/flavors of Jell-O, one of which, the team will heavily promote via - what else? - billboards! The other flavor will have no campaign support outside their cages. After a period of exposure to the campaign, the monkeys will be offered a choice of both - and that's where the theories will begin.

But back to the sex part, because that's what makes this all so funny-yet-fascinating.

"They do not have language or culture and they have very short attention spans. We really had to strip out any hip and current thinking and get to the absolute core of what is advertising. We're used to doing fairly complex and nuanced work. For this exploration we had to constantly ask ourselves, 'Could we be less finessed?'. We wanted the most visceral approaches."

--Keith Olwell, quoted in New Scientist

On that front, mission accomplished. One billboard shows a graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed, alongside the brand A logo while another other shows the alpha male of the capuchin troop associated with brand A. Which leads to my favorite quote of this story:

"Monkeys have been shown in previous studies to really love photographs of alpha males and shots of genitals, and we think this will drive their purchasing habits."

--Keith Olwell, quoted in New Scientist

If the team is looking for proof that consumers - in any form - are a bunch of hairless monkeys that thoughtlessly respond to butts and boobies when buying stuff, I'd say we are already drowning in evidence.

Now, whose up for lunch at Hooter's? I hear they have Jell-O.

~Heather Clisby

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns; Section Editor, LIFE; Proprietor, ClizBiz

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