A Magical Night at the Zoo, Sponsored by Big Business

The proliferation of corporate support for public institutions raises perplexing issues.

Daniel Bar-On

At the beginning of the month, the Ramat Gan Safari Park unveiled a new evening attraction that will run for three months – a special sound-and-light tour of the park.

Greater Tel Aviv’s major zoological park combines aspects of a traditional zoo with opens spaces where the animals are allowed to roam freely and visitors get to see them from their cars. It is a public agency sponsored by the municipalities of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan.

"The entrance to the zoo will be particularly spectacular and will feature a projection of a giant elephant followed by an entire jungle that will come to life through lighting, music and sound," a press release says. "In the space of one moment, with the onset of evening, the Safari Park will be turned into a different place in appearance and character.”

What the press release doesn’t say can be gleaned from the project’s name, “Isracard Safari Magic,” a reference to Israel’s largest credit card company, advertising for which is ubiquitous even before you actually get to the park. There are Isracard and Isracard Safari Magic flags on the access road to the zoo, a thoroughfare that also leads to a nearby national park. And more flags near the ticket booths along with a giant Isracard sign overhead. Once inside, visitors hoping to be spared the commercialization will find other reminders of Isracard’s sponsorship, including stands with illustrations of animals, along with references to Isracard, where children can have their picture taken. Pictures can also be taken using a special cellphone app that the credit card firm developed with the Safari Park. And on the way out? There’s an Isracard sign thanking visitors for coming.

Short of painting elephants in the colors of the credit card company, the Safari Park did everything possible to give Isracard publicity.

“We’ve been dreaming about this project for five years already,” explains Safari Park spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz. “There will be those who say it’s not appropriate for there to be Isracard advertising at the Safari Park, but we just feel extremely grateful that [Isracard] enabled us to realize this dream.”

Isracard Safari Magic cost 12 million shekels ($3.5 million) to produce. In addition to Isracard, it was funded by the Gil Teichman lighting design company, but those involved declined to say how the cost was split between the two.

This isn’t the first time the Safari Park has collaborated with a commercial firm. Prior corporate sponsors include CAL Israel Credit Cards and Nirlat Paint, but Horowitz confirms that the current promotion is the largest collaboration with a commercial firm ever at the park.

“We have a problem,” she acknowledges. “We can’t solicit contributions because legally we have been considered a corporation since the Safari Park was established 40 years ago.”

The evening audiovisual summer attraction simply would not have happened without Isracard, she says. “We don’t have a spare 12 million shekels for such things. If we did, we would refurbish the animals’ quarters. One day, when the State of Israel [begins to] fund the Safari Park, we will be able to do what we want without outside [commercial] support.”

The Israeli public has gotten used to widespread commercial sponsorship. Events such as the Nike Tel Aviv night run, the Samsung marathon and other commercially sponsored events have become routine in Tel Aviv, while similar events are held in Jerusalem and Haifa. And Bank Hapoalim has made it a practice to fund free admission to museums and historic sites around the country every Passover. But sponsorship by commercial enterprises has become widespread year-round.

Dr. Avivit Agam-Dali, an advertising and communications specialist at the Nazareth Academic Institute, says the public does not win out in the end. “It’s totally clear why commercial companies do this. They derive the aura of prestige from the museum, for example, as a cultural institution, but members of the public attending the museum pay money [as an admission fee]. Why do they need to come face-to-face with advertising? There are those who say that’s how it’s done abroad, but I don’t think we need to adopt everything that’s done abroad.”

The Safari Park is the most prominent current example of commercial sponsorship, but hardly the only one. On a smaller scale, commercial signs are on display at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, one of the country’s most popular sites where admission is charged. The Tnuva food company, for example, sponsored the acquisition of four elephants at the Biblical Zoo and a sign there recognizes Tnuva’s support. And nearby is a plaque in recognition of Migdal Insurance’s support for efforts to protect the Asian elephant. The signs praising the two firms are still on display, even though their support is more than a decade old.

The Central Bottling Company, the Coca-Cola franchise in Israel, has a cooperative agreement with the Jerusalem zoo, and from the zoo snack bar you can’t miss the umbrellas emblazoned with the Coca-Cola colors. The map of the zoo’s children’s attractions also features Coke’s logo.

The zoo declined to provide details regarding its relationship with the Central Bottling Company, Tnuva or Migdal, saying only that it is proud of the corporate sponsorships that it has secured to fund educational programming and animal protection efforts. “The sponsorships and donations reduce the public’s share of funding of special projects and considerably increase [the zoo’s] innovative and ground-breaking activities.”

Contributions are all allocated for special projects and not used to fund day-to-day operations, and appear in the zoo’s annual financial report, the statement added.

Another interesting case involves the Carasso Science Park in Be’er Sheva, which was established in cooperation with the Be’er Sheva municipality, the Education Ministry, the Rashi Foundation and members of the Carasso family, owners of a car importing company that bears their name. The park is composed of a number of exhibits on a range of subjects connected to science, and was established in cooperation with commercial firms, in terms of both funding and professional consultancy.

To the park’s credit, signage mentioning commercial sponsors is done in a modest fashion, more in way of thanks than advertising. The problem with the sponsorship of exhibits, however, relates more to the content presented. An exhibit on plant protection, for example, was funded by Adama, the fertilizer company formerly called Makhteshim Agan, which also provided advice on the exhibit’s content. The company is one of two major Israeli producers of fertilizer and pesticides for agriculture. The use of pesticides, as well as the issue of genetic modification of food, are controversial, but the Be’er Sheva science park makes no mention of the controversy, which is particularly glaring in light of its sponsorship by a company whose interest is to downplay the issue.

“Pesticides for plants are like medicine for people,” one exhibit reads. Also featured is information about harmful substances, weeds, agrochemicals, genetic engineering and even mention of the insecticide Rimon, which is one of Adama’s most widely sold products. All of the concepts are presented in a positive light without any other point of view.

Adama had the following response: “This project is another in a series of projects and investments that the [Adama] group is promoting in the field of agricultural education and the advancement of excellence in education. The exhibit opens a window to the world of agriculture, food and research and development, a world in which there are many dilemmas, and undoubtedly opening the window will contribute to those who wish to learn more later on about the various dilemmas.”

Another exhibit at the science park describes the development of human communications, beginning with tom-tom drums and ending with smartphones. One item in the exhibit, however, an unmanned drone aircraft used by the Israel Defense Forces, appears totally out of context. The only loose connection that it might have to the focus of the exhibit is that it uses communications equipment. A possible explanation, however, might be found in the list of acknowledgements for the communications display, which includes a number of IDF officers, among them Lt. Col. Shlomo Feder, who heads the Israel Air Force’s aircraft engineering division.

The Carasso Science Park responded in part that a number of entities were involved in establishing the park. “With respect to the communications exhibit, similar to the other portions of the exhibits, the creation of the communications exhibit was carried out with the assistance of a professional academic committee, all of whose members were volunteers [and] experts in the field including someone from the air force who is an expert on the subject, who also volunteers with IAF approval. The use of the unmanned aircraft was decided upon by the professionals who assisted in setting up the exhibit as a way of demonstrating the relevant scientific principles. The IDF did not contribute to or fund any portion of this exhibition, or any other exhibit in the park.”

Noa Nabet helped in preparing this report.