Growing up in the '80s, there were only four TV channels. Consequently, when we got to school, it was a pretty safe bet that we had all watched the same telly as everyone else the night before. So in the playground of a morning, we would all run around doing impressions of Dr Bruce Banner morphing into The Incredible Hulk, or pretending to be Ponch and John from CHiPs. At least, the boys did. I think the girls were probably making up overly convoluted chants and playing netball, if memory serves. (I'm not really sure; at the time it was, “Yuk! Girls!”)
Out of those four TV channels, of course, only two (ITV and C4) ran commercial breaks. And if the ads were any good, we did impressions of those as well. I remember few adverts as fondly as the PG Tips series, featuring the lovable, cuddly chimps who lip-synced to the vocal talents of Peter Sellers and Bob Monkhouse – “impersonating” everyone from James Bond to cleaning ladies to Channel Tunnel diggers. I mean, what's not to love, right?
And yet, with the death last week of Choppers, the last of the PG Tips chimps (and Louis the previous July), we've now been forced to revisit those childhood memories and think, “What were we thinking?”
Dressing up chimps and making them do things for our entertainment? Really? So recently?
OK, let's not get carried away before we jump on any animal cruelty bandwagon. After all, we're not talking about bears being chained up and tortured and then being made to dance in the streets while the owners collected money. Raised at Twycross Zoo (which admittedly did benefit from the revenue raised by the PG Tips ads), these chimps were doubtless deeply loved, cared for and treated very well by Molly Badham, who set up the zoo in 1963.
As recently as 2003, she told the BBC how much the chimps loved dressing up. "They were having a ball," she said. "They were juveniles and so very curious. They were enjoying themselves and having fun."
Conversely, the zoo's current chief executive, Sharon Redrobe, has said that making chimps act in these ads caused them to become “mixed up”. This will never, ever happen again under her watch, she states.
"It's not a good start in life to be treated like a human because they don't learn ape behaviour and are not very good at being with other chimps,” she said. "[Chimps are] fascinating creatures but people have to appreciate that they're amazing in their own enclosure rather than being dressed up.”
The zoo's Head of Life Sciences, Dr Charlotte Macdonald, said the fact that Louis and Choppers lived so long as a pair, relying on each other, was a clear indication that things were not right. "Chimpanzees are group living animals," she explained. “But [Louis and Choppers] were very focussed on humans, more than they should be. They would recognise regular visitors and effectively come over and say hello. Chimps should ignore you."
Louis and Choppers misunderstood other chimps too, being more used to human contact. Another chimp might offer their hand in friendship, for instance, but the two chimp actors didn't understand this gesture. Only at the very end of their lives did they really learn how to act like chimps.
A spokeswoman for Unilever, which owns PG Tips, said: “We haven’t featured chimpanzees in any PG Tips advertising for over a decade and now use the iconic ‘Monkey’ character as our brand ambassador.”
We may have moved on from using chimps or other animals in this way for TV commercials, but it does make me wonder what else we're currently doing which we're going to look back on in 20-30 years' time and ask ourselves, “What were we thinking?”
For now, though – and in memory of Louis and the more recently departed Choppers, here's a montage of the nation's favourite PG Tips commercial. Did they raise a nostalgic chuckle in me? Guilty as charged.
Ashley is a copywriter, editor and blogger
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