Stealing Nature’s Face(s)

What do you think about the new product I’m working on? Hugh Jackman Glue TM. This glue is tough. Tough like your favorite Marvel superhero. And it sticks together for a long time, just like Hugh and his lovely wife.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself but I think it’s going to be a big seller. You see, everyone knows lots about Hugh Jackman. He’ll look great on the packaging, really stand out on-shelf, and he’s got plenty of traits that will be super ownable for my brand. People want a glue that’s tough and that can stand the test of time. Match made in heaven!

The only obstacle between me and a stellar series of appearances on QVC is the issue of likeness rights. One part of laws concerning “right of publicity”, these make it illegal for me to use Hugh’s name and ruggedly handsome features for commercial purposes without his approval. And right now I haven’t gotten a lot of traction from his team about fueling my dream to become the next home adhesive kingpin.

You can see why likeness rights are very important to Hugh. His gifts and hard work have earned him a national reputation, one that he deserves to profit from and control. Courts in the US and abroad would see me profiting from Hugh Glue without his consent as illegal exploitation.

Well shoot! And I’ve already got the ingredients in an industrial mixer… Time to find another face for the company. One that’s known for being tough, but still relatable and recognizable. More importantly, one that can’t sue me when I make money hand over fist and don’t share a single dime with them.

How about a gorilla?

Sure, it’s unlikely the now-ubiquitous Gorilla Glue started out as Hugh Glue. But it’s not hard to see why its makers chose the gorilla as the spokesbeing for their product. The mental associations we have about gorillas do a lot of good work in making us think about a glue favorably. They work so well, in fact, that The Gorilla Glue Company has fought in court to defend the name Gorilla Glue and the likeness of a gorilla from other companies.

Only, is that really fair?

Hugh Jackman owns the whole idea of “being Hugh Jackman”. Can a Cincinnati-based corporate collective own “being a gorilla”? For being tough and strong, Hugh Jackman makes millions of dollars. For being tough and strong, gorillas make millions of dollars… for the Ragland family.

With his millions of dollars Hugh is in fine form, earning more than enough to take care of himself and his family’s needs, interests, and then donate to charities and causes he believes in. Meanwhile, gorillas aren’t quite as flush. Though protected by international law, their habitats are dwindling due to deforestation and mining for materials used in smart phones. They are hunted to provide exotic meat and folk-medicines on the black market. It puts Gorilla Glue’s official company motto in stark perspective: “For the toughest jobs on the planet.” Tougher jobs than being an actual gorilla?

Gorilla Glue mentions nothing on its website about giving back to the animals on whose backs the company has built its fortunes. It does seem they sponsor a local phone recycling drive through the Cincinnati Zoo. If that’s the extent to which they give back to gorillas, I think that’s pretty shameful. But my intent is less to criticize The Gorilla Glue Company specifically and more to point out an enormous blind spot in our cultural expectations about who profits from products that nature helps to sell.

Animals and plants are used to sell innumerable products all over the world. Just picture right now how many natural beings are brightly plastered on boxes and bags in a single aisle in a supermarket, or pay attention to what leaps out at you from the jungle during your next commercial break. It makes sense — we love animals and plants! And from a business perspective, it makes sense too. If I use a sequoia as my namesake I’m cashing in on public perceptions of “eternal” “natural” and “California” without having to pay a dime to preserve what remains of our irreplaceable old growth forests.

That is not fair. The same ownership of identity that protects Hugh Jackman’s ability to profit from his likeness should apply to the rest of the other wonders of the natural world too. While signing a check out to “Gorillas” is implausible, we humans are smart creatures at figuring out how to use money to accomplish all sorts of things. Think of all the wealth being created by gorillas (consumer goods, food, Halloween costumes, movies, TV shows, recorded music); you can imagine that if we lived in a world where gorillas were compensated for their popularity there would be ample resources to protect their habitat, combat their slaughter and sale, research ways to renew their numbers, and learn and share more about the unique gifts they bring to our planet.

The Gorilla Glue Company is privately-held, but estimates of its annual revenue go above $50M. Gorillaz have sold over 20 million albums worldwide. King Kong earned more than $506M at the box office in 2005. Meanwhile, there are less than 880 mountain gorillas alive in the wild today.

If we want our world to get healthier, we need to be honest about how we take from nature without giving back. And then we need to ask more from ourselves and from the companies we buy from. Regardless of how cute the animal is on the box.

Brand strategist writing about how companies impact culture. Fascinated by stories that explore our relationship with nature.