Chimpanzees in commercials

In light of today being Super Bowl Sunday, a day when advertisers spent millions of dollars trying to make the most interesting and attractive commercials to appeal to the largest number of television viewers in one time slot, I wanted to talk a little bit about responsible advertising.

Every once in a while we see a commercial that features a chimpanzee, usually incorrectly called a monkey, wearing clothes and smiling and it’s supposed to make us laugh. Unfortunately, when you find out what happens behind the scenes, you learn that these commercials are not funny at all.

When I first came to Central Washington University in 2005, I admittedly did not entirely know the difference between monkeys and chimpanzees, and I would giggle a little bit at commercials that featured these beings. However, I decided to attend a one-hour Chimposium, and immediately learned how wrong and naïve I had been. Chimpanzees are not in fact monkeys, they are apes, just like us. They share 98.77% of our DNA. They have similar developmental patterns, they live in similar social groups, they have culture, and they can acquire language. And although those are all a really huge similarities, I also learned that there are some differences between chimpanzees and humans.

We were told that in order to facilitate a friendly interaction with the chimpanzees, we should try a “chimpanzee smile” while visiting them for our Chimposium observation. This is different from a human smile – it’s made by covering your top teeth. I thought this was pretty funny but went ahead and did my best. It surprised me why we were asked to do this – because a human smile is actually a threat face in chimpanzees. Showing your top teeth is a sign of fear, so it is actually called a “fear grimace.” We learned that the chimpanzees we see on television exhibiting this expression are threatened or abused into making that face, which we have all laughed at, simply because we don’t understand chimpanzee behavior.

I found the Chimposium to be so interesting and wanted to become more involved. On that day I never would have guessed that I would one day become a chimpanzee caregiver and advocate. But here I am, working with some of the best friends I will ever have who have taught me so much, and running an advocacy program that aims to put an end to the use of chimpanzees in entertainment. It’s because of what I learned about chimpanzee behavior, not just in textbooks but also witnessing it first hand, that I realized how horrible these beings are treated in order to sell us stuff.

I’m not the only one who was enlightened by this information – there is a growing public awareness about the inherent cruelty of exploiting chimpanzees in entertainment. Ten of the top 15 advertising agencies have chosen to take a vow to never use nonhuman primates in any of their promotions. Several large companies have also taken this pledge, and have chosen to change or remove commercials that featured chimpanzees after hearing from concerned consumers and advocacy organizations. Dodge and Pfizer are two great examples from just a few months ago. Dodge even issued this mea culpa explaining why they altered their commercial.

So, why is any of this relevant for today’s Super Bowl commercials? Because CareerBuilder has chosen to air a commercial (once again) that features chimpanzee “actors.” They did this in 2005 and 2006, and even after receiving complaints from the public and advocacy organizations, they still chose to go ahead with the commercial.

Although CareerBuilder has likely spent a million or two on making this commercial, the expense that is paid by the chimpanzee actors is far greater. Why should we be exploiting an endangered species to make consumers laugh? And, not only are these chimpanzees treated inhumanely in order to exhibit these behaviors we find so funny – but what happens to them when they become too hard to manage? Chimpanzee “actors” are all very young. You can tell this because of their pale faces and ears. At this age, they belong with their mothers, just like human children. Instead they are taken away from their mothers, and when they’ve worn out their use for the entertainment industry after a few years, they are often discarded without any concern for their lifetime care. Roadside zoos are a frequent destination for ex-entertainment chimpanzees. They spend decades in horrible living conditions, all because companies like CareerBuilder perpetuate the use of young chimpanzees in entertainment.

The only way for this to stop is to keep your voices heard – write letters, refuse to be a patron of any company that exploits primates for a cheap laugh, and spread the word. As humans, we have condemned these sentient beings to a life of imprisonment for a crime they did not commit – and we are the only ones that can ensure their lives as inmates are of the utmost quality care.

Want to write to CareerBuilder and let them know how you feel? You can send an e-mail to the CEO, Matt Ferguson, at

Learn more about chimpanzees in entertainment on our Friends of Washoe site here. For tips on letter-writing, please visit Primate Patrol’s site which also has sample letters under the tab “action alerts.” Continue to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Thank you!


About Debbie Metzler

Debbie began working with chimpanzees in 2005 while she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Central Washington University. She continued on to earn a master's degree in primate behavior, and after graduation joined the adjunct faculty in the primate behavior department. Debbie is an experienced coordinator for education, outreach, and advocacy programs. Currently she is working toward putting an end to the exploitation of non-human apes everywhere.
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