Censored! The image that you never saw!

By Che

The following is a (lengthy) blog post that discusses a marketing image that we created and decided not to use. The post discusses the creative process behind the image, and details why we ultimately decided not to use it. This is intended to give you an insight into how our Mighty Ape works and also convey some of our values. Enjoy :)

I can't remember exactly how the topic came up, but Dylan and I were discussing ideas late one Friday afternoon in the middle of May. We were talking about the NetGuide Web Awards, voting had begun, and we needed to rally the monkeys and get our fans voting for us. As many of you may already know we have won several NetGuide web awards over the years and we're pretty proud of it; note the text “ Voted New Zealand's Best Online Shopping Site” in our website's header.

We'd love to win the award for Best Online Shopping Site again. So in a few short minutes we came up with a brief plan of attack: an email announcement to our customers, some posts on our page on Facebook, a couple of Tweets on Twitter, and some cool artwork to jazz it up. Dylan was pretty hyped and wanted to get the announcement out on Monday, so I got to work on the text for the email announcement and I messaged Tsai, our resident graphic designer, and told him I'd need some cool artwork by Monday morning.

We can be quite particular about our artwork, and we were pretty particular about the message that we wanted the art to convey. We wanted something exciting that made people want to vote and at the same time convey what our brand is about. Mighty Ape is a small, privately owned NZ company and we are up against some pretty tough competition, we think of ourselves as the underdog and wanted to convey that somewhat with the artwork.

We racked our brains for a few minutes trying to come up with an idea for the artwork, it was a little bit of a struggle. I repeated the word “underdog” over and over in my head and then it hit me, boom, I had the perfect idea, Obama! President Obama to me opitimised underdog; the idea of the United States of America having a black president, which is now a reality, seemed like an impossibility only a few years ago. The late Tupac Shakur once famously commented “although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready, to see a black President”.

As you may have noticed we are playful with our brand, we like to mimic people, characters and brands from time to time in our artwork. We've styled Al (the ape) as Mario, The Mad Hatter, and the Easter bunny among other things. I thought why not take the iconic “Hope” image that Shepard Fairey created for (at the time) US presidential hopeful Barrack Obama but substitute President Obama with Al, and change “Hope” to “Vote”. I thought it was a great idea that was easy to understand and satisfied our objectives of creating something that would get people excited about voting for us while positioning us as the underdogs. Dylan agreed, and Tsai got to work creating the art. Tsai sent me a couple of sketches that afternoon and after a few minor tweaks we were happy with the rough sketch. I left the office for the day and Tsai continued working on the image over the image over the weekend.

I came back to the office fresh from the weekend on Monday morning to find an email in my inbox with the finished artwork. I was floored! It was amazing! It was as awesome as I expected it would be and then some. This is not uncommon, Tsai is a genius. I'll give him a rough idea of what we need and he always comes back to me with something amazing!

I discussed the finished artwork with Dylan, he was impressed with it too, then he asked the question, “do you think people might think we are saying that Obama is a monkey?” This of course was not our intention at all, we did not want to offend anyone with the image. The truth is that the thought had briefly crossed my mind over the weekend but I had brushed it off thinking that I was just being too sensitive. Then I thought about it a little more and I recalled how the New York Post had published a cartoon that likened President Obama to a “rabid chimpanzee”, and how Google apologised to the first lady, Michelle Obama, when Google image searches for her returned images that depicted her as a monkey (not cool!). At the same time I messaged a trusted friend who works in the media and asked her to have a look at the image, she agreed that people may interpret some unfortunate racial connotations from our image. We could have taken a risk and run with it and hoped that no-one pointed out this interpretation but in my experience if you say or do something that has the potential to offend someone, it usually does. It was doomed, we weren't prepared to expose our company to that risk, we couldn't use the image, so we went back to the drawing board.

I got back to work with Tsai developing some new artwork. We eventually came up with the image that we used of a small monkey tip-toeing to reach up and place his vote in a voting box. Again this image satisfied our obectives of encouraging people to vote and positioned us as underdogs. Not quite on the same level as the Obama image but still a great image.

It felt like such a shame to let Tsai's work on the Obama image go to waste but that's the way it goes sometimes. I guess that says a lot about what kind of company Mighty Ape is. Mighty Ape is a multicultural company, we employ people from a variety of backgrounds, we are responsible and concerned about the image that we project. A picture says a thousand words, and we don't want one of those words to be “racist”. That would be so far from the truth, not to mention bad for business. We definitely did not want to get any negative publicity from this whether it be in the form of Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, newspaper articles or even the six o'clock news. Some people say that any publicity is good publicity, and that may be true in some cases but in this case I'd disagree strongly. Ultimately we're confident that we made the right decision.

This is was a pretty lengthy post (thanks for hanging in there) but I hope that this blog post has given you a bit of an insight into the creative process behind some of our marketing at Mighty Ape and conveyed some of our companies values. Oh, and sure enough you monkeys voted for us and we are proud to say that we are finalists in the NetGuide Web Awards for Best Online Shopping Site, Best Game Related Site, and (somewhat perplexingly) Best New Launch Relaunch or Innovation. The winners are going to be announced on Thursday night. We hope we win some awards, and we're crossing our tails in anticipation :)

Tags: business


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  • Daniel says: 18 August 2010, 10:40am

    Wise decision to pull the image - it wouldn't have gone down well.

    Even though to those who follow your marketing the intention would have been clear, the moment it was seen by people who didn't know the Mighty Ape brand (virtually everyone in the states), you would have been in trouble.

  • Anthony says: 18 August 2010, 10:43am

    Just cause it still looks like Obama :P, note your fault that most of the american presidents looks like various primates.

    Would have been great exposure though, i would have gone with it.

  • Sheldon says: 18 August 2010, 10:45am

    Good call team. I like the second one even better!

  • Rhiannon from Mighty Ape says: 18 August 2010, 10:46am

    Tsai = win. It really is a shame we couldn't use that image, it's awesome.

  • Talia says: 18 August 2010, 11:40am

    I think you made a good decision. I personally loved the idea and understood its meaning that it wasn't offensive to Obama but needless to say many people don't have an open mind and b*&ch first and understand later.

    Loved the image - Tsai, your amazing and I wish I had your skill. Keep Conquering the World Wide Web Mighty Ape.

  • William says: 18 August 2010, 11:44am

    I really like the idea!

  • Kelvin says: 18 August 2010, 11:54am

    I like that pic... any chance to see Tsai's gallery? Or have some of these MightyApe artworks for sale, either as stickers or notepad, you know MightyApe merchandise?

  • Ben from Mighty Ape says: 18 August 2010, 11:59am

    Very interesting read, thanks for sharing Che!

  • David says: 18 August 2010, 12:26pm

    I think its sad that as a society we have come to this point. Why is there a vocal minority out there that must always assume the worst in every situation, and interpret such imagery as offensive, when a simple bit of research would show that it was definitely not created to be so.

    Not saying you made the wrong decision, as I sadly agree that you took the wisest path. Its just a damn shame that you had to.

  • Alias says: 18 August 2010, 12:36pm

    That image has been reproduced many times, it's the same as the Andy Warhol image of Ms Monroe, you shoulda gone with it (but respect your decision to not done so)

  • Chris says: 18 August 2010, 12:56pm

    That was an excellent read; thanks for sharing - and the original artwork was indeed fantastic!

    Ultimately offense is taken, not given, and sadly there are people out there who go out of their way to take offense wherever they can find it.

    It was probably for the best not to run with it but giving us a look at the work, while presenting it in context, is a great way to get the best of both worlds.

  • Stevie says: 18 August 2010, 1:07pm

    I think you did the right thing
    but for me Apes are wonderful creatures and I'd never be offended if anyone called me an ape, I'd take it as a complement :D

  • Albert says: 18 August 2010, 2:38pm

    But... he is a monkey.

  • Sean says: 18 August 2010, 5:12pm

    I also think you guys made the right decision. There's no doubt that at least one person would've interpreted the image as being racist, and I disagree with the saying "any publicity is good publicity" in this case as well.

    Still, I'm glad that you decided to blog about and show the image as it's a great piece of artwork! Tsai certainly is one talented guy! I wish I had even just half the talent he has.

    By the way, I absolutely LOVE Kelvin's idea! You guys really should consider making some Mighty Ape merchandise. Being the stationary geek that I am, I would, without a doubt, snap up some Mighty Ape notebooks.

  • Heath says: 18 August 2010, 6:35pm

    Before I read the post, I saw the image and within a few seconds I realized what the post would be about. So it's not that hard to see the issue.

    Both are great. Going with the "safe" option isn't about pandering to a minority, it's about making a mature decision. You listed two examples that are still fresh in peoples minds. Why take the risk in offending anyone?

    Hell Pizza tries to offend people, but that's part of their brand, and it works for them, and I like that. MightyApe is playful, cheeky and fun. So it *was* the right choice for the business. (having said that about Hell, they wouldn't take any risks around race. Annoying Christians & housewives isn't frowned upon)

    I love the fact you not only made this decision, but you put the image out there in this context.

  • Travis says: 18 August 2010, 6:52pm

    "having said that about Hell, they wouldn't take any risks around race. Annoying Christians & housewives isn't frowned upon"

    Have you forgotten the "This Brownie won't eat your dog" campaign from Hell's?

    Anyhow, good decision not running with this artwork, but it does look fantastic. It's awesome that there are so many talented illustrators in NZ.

    Keep up the good work guys!