Iceland has been forced to rework its Christmas advertising campaign after its “overtly political” ad was blocked from running by Clearcast. Its marketing director shares Plan B for what is the most crucial time in the retailer’s calendar after Plan A was scuppered at the 11th hour.
It’s a nightmare situation for Neil Hayes, who joined Iceland as marketing director just five months ago. He says some people have suggested that this has been the marketing strategy all along, but he wants to set the record straight on the turn of events that led it to this point.
Iceland had been slowly trying to remove all palm oil products from its shelves for several months and Hayes said the Greenpeace film (created by ad agency Mother) on how destructive the production of palm oil is to the environment was the perfect vehicle to drive awareness of the issue and what Iceland was doing about it.
He made the call to ink a deal with Greenpeace to reuse the Emma Thompson-narrated film as its Christmas campaign just two days into the role, and before it had been released to the general public by Greenpeace.
Hayes knew it was a risk, with Greenpeace not allowed to advertise on TV because it’s classed as a political organisation.
Conversations began with Clearcast – the regulator which signs off whether an ad can run on TV – a couple of months ago and Hayes said he was confident that “discussions” had progressed in such a way that it would make it through the gate. It booked the media and forged ahead with plans.
“But as the weeks passed it became obvious that it was a more complicated issue for Clearcast and it has to abide by the guidelines that it works under," Hayes said. "We received its decision very recently which has left us in the position where we had to change our media plan.”
Iceland opted to reveal that the ad had been blocked from airing and put it on YouTube, where it has now received over 3m views (by comparison, its 2017 ad drew just 97,000 views on its YouTube channel).
Since then, everyone from James Corden (whose single tweet of the film delivered over 13m views) to Jake Humphrey and Paloma Faith have shared the film while over 500,000 people have signed a petition to get Clearcast to reconsider the judgement.
News organisations from The Guardian to the New York Times have also covered the story of how it had not been able to run.
There's an argument that the backlash to the ad's block has, in fact, been more beneficial to Iceland's marketing efforts than if it had been quietly allowed to air.
“There’s some compensation is the fact that it's gained a bit of momentum and people are watching it on social media. But I would still have loved to put it on primetime TV as our main ad,” Hayes added, despondent.
He has now put a little paid-social spend behind it, to highlight that the film wasn't allowed to run, but says that’s as far as he’ll go with promoting it with marketing budget.
“The plan is not for us to amplify it any further. In the eyes of the public, certainly on social media, it’s amazing to see the number of people signing that petition and it demonstrates the public’s feeling. But I'm also aware that even if that number reaches one million people Clearcast is not going to change that decision.”
So, attention is now turned to how Iceland makes it through the crucial Christmas trading period with no advertising campaign.
The broadcasters have “been very sympathetic” to the fact it will no longer be able to use the “hard-to-come-by” 90-second slots it had booked, which some reports suggest are worth in excess of £500,000.
It does have a handful of “conventional” 10-second product focused adverts that it’s trying to rework as they tied heavily to the hero Rang-tang creative.
These ads will air from late November and Hayes has negotiated with the broadcasters to funnel some of the spend it had earmarked for a few longer spots into more of the short formats.
Revising the strategy at this late stage will be a test for its in-house advertising team, which is still trying to find its feet since the retailer split with Karmarama earlier this year.
Hayes won’t be drawn on what the significant attention it's received had on people’s perception of the Iceland brand. “There’s been no greater consideration around the brand other than to show people that we're doing the right thing,” he went on.
Looking at the year ahead, he won’t be deterred in communicating that the supermarket is trying to reduce the number of palm-oil products it sells.
However, unlike the issue of plastic bags, for example, Hayes said people still need to be educated on what palm oil is and how the process to extract it negatively impacts the environment.
“Hopefully [with the Christmas campaign] the level of awareness is being raised. The most we can do is to support that in-store and make it clear which products are free from palm oil.”