Open Letter to World Wildlife Fund: Good Causes Don’t Justify Racist, Sexist Imagery

Debbie says:

Edited to add: It does appear that 1) the ad I was complaining about is part of a campaign that includes two other ads with male models, and 2) they may not be actual WWF ads, but either potential ads which the WWF isn’t using, or isn’t yet using, or possibly ads done with an overseas (Brazilian) partner. See the comments for more details.

These things make a difference, and at the same time I still think the image is disturbing, inappropriate, and worthy of criticism.


Dear World Wildlife Fund,

As a supporter of the same causes you promote, I was horrified to see this advertisement as part of your fundraising campaign.

black woman as jungle animal

I have three major objections.

First, women (of any ethnicity) are not wild animals. Conventionally sexy women are not prey, and your ad reminds us that they are often seen that way. If your point is that humans’ lives are endangered by the loss of the jungle, why not do the ad with a paunchy middle-aged white man with glasses? He could be sitting in an easy chair in the jungle, just to pick one idea. Or you might do a variety of people in clothes and with props appropriate to a variety of daily lives, rather than portray them as animals.

Second, why is this woman dark-skinned? By using a dark-skinned model, you are reinforcing the cultural assumption that black people closer to the jungle, “less human,” more animalistic, more exotic. If you drop a white woman into this picture in the same pose, you’ll find that many more people (perhaps including whoever is reading this letter) find the ad more uncomfortable, more upsetting. That’s a big clue that it’s not right to use a black woman there. Any place where a picture of a white woman is disquieting and a picture of a black woman is less so, that’s because our unconscious racism and racist visual stereotypes are interfering with us seeing the problem. Giving her an Afro haircut is an odd and disturbing touch: a tiny measure of “black pride” overlaid on this deeply inappropriate and dehumanizing image.

Finally, every time you use a model whose picture has been photoshopped to remove flesh (of any race or ethnicity), you’re sending a message to girls and women everywhere that they can’t/won’t ever meet the ideal body shape they see in photographs. This leads to eating disorders and an extraordinary level of self-hatred in women. Trust me, people who hate themselves are not going to work effectively to save the planet.

Please withdraw the ad and issue a public apology for its inappropriateness.

Pantryslut found this first.

15 thoughts on “Open Letter to World Wildlife Fund: Good Causes Don’t Justify Racist, Sexist Imagery

  1. You *did* see the other adverts, didn’t you? They kind of ruin your argument, though, and you figured, ‘Hey, nobody’s going to actually fact check my bullshit blog entry, they’ll just accept what I say as given, and will join the outrage!’

    Grow up, and next time apply a little critical thinking. I know, I know. It’ll be hard at first. Trying something new usually is. But the great thing is that if you keep doing it, it gets easier, and before you know it you’re not wasting time & energy on stupid things. Then you can devote you energy to fighting wrongs that actually exist.

  2. Where are these being shown? All I’m seeing is the ads, with the logo up in the corner.

    On the site Lisa links to, the ads have the “ARPA” logo (as does the ad with the black woman shown above), and according to the notes below the picture were created by a Brazilian ad agency. ARPA is a joint project of WWF, the government of Brazil, and “other partners,” according to WWF’s website.

    Back in September, the WWF was embarassed by the appearance of a 9/11 themed ad that appears to have been made by the same Brazilian agency, and which they say they never approved for publication. More here:

  3. Lisa and Janet, thanks, and sorry it took me a long time to add your information to the post.

    Brian, I had (obviously) not seen the other two ads when I wrote the post. I did what seemed to me to be a reasonable amount of research. I’m glad to know about them, and they do invalidate (or at least lessen the strength of) some of my argument, but not all.

  4. I’ve been thinking about the suite of three ads and whether considering them together negates Deb’s arguments about the “panther” ad. I think most of Deb’s argument holds.

    The depiction of black people, particularly black women, as animals or animal-like is something that has historically been part of a larger depiction of blacks as inferior and/or subhuman. This idea has been part of the systematic oppression and exploitation of black people, has been used as an excuse for — well, we all know the history, right? I don’t need to remind you.

    Depicting a white person as animal-like doesn’t carry any of the same connotations. It doesn’t say “white people are inferior to other races,” because “white” is the unmarked category, so when we see a white person (especially a white man) depicted as animal-like, we understand that the message is not about his race; it’s saying that *all* humans are animals (which of course is true).

    In other words, depicting a white man as animal-like is not symmetrical with depicting a black woman as animal-like; it doesn’t cancel out. Even if it did, with a series of ads that are not necessarily going to be shown together, each one has to stand alone. The person making the ad has to think about the potential impact of each image if the person viewing it hasn’t seen the others.

    Other notes:

    The white man is shown facing the viewer, crouching but not in a weak position. The other two are shown in a way that makes them look vulnerable and sexually available.

    Finally, the “panther” ad reminds me of a billboard advertising malt liquor that I saw in Oakland years ago. It showed a black woman dressed in a leopard-print outfit, in essentially the same position as the woman in the panther ad. The text said something like “It’s the power!” but someone had spray-painted out the last two words and written in “sexist and racist.” I may have some of the details wrong, but that’s the gist. Again, the whole point was to make her look sexually available.

  5. Thank you for writing this. To me the ad was clearly racist and though I felt it was sexist as well, I couldn’t nail down exactly how.

  6. Get over yourself. You take offence where offence isn’t intended. The ad is not racist or sexist other than in your own crazy heads. Face it you goofballs sex sells. It has been that way since the dawn of time and it will be that way after your paunchy fat ass is in the grave. The animal kingdom is full of specimens that are physically fit. The animal kingdom does not replicate the paunchy fat assedness of the human world. If you cannot embrace the beauty of the human form than that is your problem. I don’t feel anyone of any color should feel bad about that. You probably also objected to the “naked” ads put out by PETA.

  7. Do you know if this is indeed a real ad? I’m trying to use it as the subject of a university paper but I need to cite the photographer and verify that it is indeed an actual ad, even if it was never used in advertising. Please let me know! Thanks!

    1. Hi, Emily,

      If you follow the links, you’ll see it on ads of the world. We found it as an actual WWF published ad (on the Internet); I don’t know if it was ever published on paper.

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