The Real Victims of Mastercard’s Campaign

November 30, 2019

It was just an advertisement in one of the busy corridors of the Narita International Airport (NRT/Tokyo Airport), one of the world’s busiest airports. This banner ad, sponsored by Mastercard, depicted a bunch of happy tourists riding elephants in front of the beautiful background of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. People passing by this advertisement in the airport had no idea they were being subconsciously influenced by a disgusting and negative message from Mastercard: “Ride an elephant to make your trip to Asia memorable and enjoyable!”

Subconscious Influence

According to Dr. Robert Heath, an Associate Professor of Advertising Theory at University of Bath, emotional content of advertising requires no conscious attention at all in order to be effectively processed by the viewer’s brain. In this case, hundreds of thousands of daily passengers in the Narita airport were all subconscious victims of a plot by Mastercard, despite the fact that they probably did not think they were paying any attention to this ad, hurrying by the banner on the way to catch their flights. Mastercard’s goal in using this particular advertisement, whether people realize it or not, is to depict elephant riding as a “cool, hyped, and joyful experience.”

In fact, Mastercard used the same technique that was revealed in Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders more than 60 years ago: messages exposed below our level of perception were able to boost sales of ice cream and Coke. (And, in this case, Mastercard.)

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What’s wrong with this picture?

What this seemingly innocent ad isn’t depicting is the true stories of suffer, torture, psychological and physical damage, and life-long enslavement for the real victims of elephant slavery: the elephants. They are sentenced to being beaten and entangled until the end of their days. Until they lose their fight and the will to live. In the process of “taming,” baby elephants are severely tortured, beaten, and strangled, so they lose whatever willpower they have and become submissive to their human trainers. For decades, elephants are kept in inhumane conditions, without proper care, food, or rest.

What has the elephant done to deserve this life-long punishment?

Our Petition

In December 2018, we started a petition demanding that Mastercard help end elephant slavery and immediately end this campaign. Within three months, 116,488 people from all around the world signed this petition. Many of them were Mastercard customers, and many of them provided thoughtful messages alongside their signatures, like this message from Judy H. of Ontario, Canada: “Elephants belong in the wild. Keeping these majestic and intelligent creatures in captivity is very cruel. Mastercard should do the right thing and not support elephant captivity through their advertising.”

Here was our list of demands in the petition:

1- Immediate removal of all Mastercard billboards, posters or any advertising material that contains animal abuse.

2- Publicly apologize for these ads on TV and in major publishing materials in Southeast Asia, and condemn elephant riding as a form of animal abuse.3- Donate the same amount spent on these advertisements to elephant sanctuaries that house retired abused elephants, or $5 million — whichever is more.

4- Support charities that are fighting to end elephant riding.

5- Fund release of 400 elephants from elephant riding facilities through Southeast Asia.

6- Promise never to support any form of animal abuse such as zoos, riding, etc.


We need to hold brands accountable for what they promote both consciously and subconsciously, for our planet, and for the wellbeing of animals. If a global corporation like Mastercard is directly (or indirectly) promoting elephant riding — a known form of animal abuse — then it needs to be held accountable for the repercussions. The elephants are the real victims of Mastercard’s advertisement, and anyone who sees the ad is also a subconscious victim of disgusting advertising by an unthoughtful corporation. This free ride should end now!

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