Keith Olwell and Elizabeth Kiehner had an epiphany last year. At a TED talk, the two New York advertising executives learned that captive monkeys understand money, and that when faced with economic games they will behave in similar ways to humans. So if they can cope with money, how would they respond to advertising?
Laurie Santos, the Yale University primatologist who gave the TED talk, studies monkeys as a way of exploring the evolution of the human mind. A partnership was soon born between Santos, and Olwell and Kiehner’s company Proton. The resulting monkey ad campaign was unveiled on Saturday at the Cannes Lions Festival, the creative festival for the advertising industry.
The objective, says Olwell, is to see if advertising can make brown capuchins change their behaviour. The team will create two brands of food – the team is considering making two colours of jello – specifically targeted at brown capuchins, one supported by an ad campaign and the other not.
How do you advertise to monkeys? Easy: create a billboard campaign that hangs outside the monkeys’ enclosure.
“The foods will be novel to them and are equally delicious,” Olwell says. Brand A will be advertised and brand B will not. After a period of exposure to the campaign, the monkeys will be offered a choice of both brands.
Santos plans to kick off the experimental campaign in the coming weeks. “If they tend toward one and not the other we’ll be witnessing preference shifting due to our advertising,” Olwell says.
Olwell says that developing a campaign for non-humans threw up some special challenges. “They do not have language or culture and they have very short attention spans,” he says. “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.”
New Scientist has seen the resulting two billboards. We are unable to show them until Santos and her team have completed their study, but we can reveal that its message is most certainly visceral.
One billboard shows a graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed, alongside the brand A logo. The other shows the alpha male of the capuchin troop associated with brand A.
Olwell expects brand A to be the capuchins’ favoured product. “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.”
The team wanted shots for the campaign that were as natural as possible. “After we settled on what they were being sold and that we were going to be doing ‘sex sells’, we really wanted to make a very direct ad. We wanted to shoot our subjects involved in normal day-to-day life.”
Image: Shutterstock/Eric Isselée