I feel like the ultimate hybrid. A hardened advertising copywriter mixed with a passionate canine welfare campaigner. Advertising and animal welfare is not always a happy marriage.
On one hand, I know only too well that the most appealing way to get the ‘ahhhh’ factor from consumers is to use babies and puppies in advertising. When it comes to babies, probably the worst that can happen is that some women get broody and want one. Unfortunately, the same result, however unwittingly, happens when advertisers use cute animals to monetise their products and services. In this instance I’m mainly focusing on the use of dogs.
In the good old days of advertising, before life revolved around the internet, a Hush Puppies ad was pretty harmless. As were commercials featuring the famous Dulux dog and of course the adorable Andrex puppy. Later we had the lovable Churchill nodding dog. Ohhhh yes! But in 2019 Churchill rebranded, and their famous animated nodding dog was reimagined in CGI form, described as a “lean, mean chill machine” by the creators. Since then, we’ve seen Churchie cruising on a skateboard around the streets of Madrid, and in their latest ad the English bulldog is seen meandering his way effortlessly down a funfair slide.
“In his latest outing, Churchie, the guru of chill, shows us how to iron out life’s unexpected bumps,” says Leon Jaume, Executive Creative Director of ENGINE Creative.
The emphasis of this new iteration of Churchie is on the word ‘chill’ – as in ChurCHILL. It’s ironic because ‘chilling’ is something that these flat faced breeds can find so very hard to do in hot weather, or indeed, in any weather. And as for skateboarding (which apparently is something bulldogs find easy to master) and now going down a funfair slide – it makes perfect sense for a breed that is so often incapable of even simple exercise, to make use of easier modes of transport just to get from A to B, right?
Many brands over the years, that have no relation to pet products and even some that do, have latched on to the appeal of using puppies and dogs in their ads. Is this really creativity or is it just lazy advertising?
Take McVities for example. One day a creative team sat around a desk and came up with the idea that having mouth-wateringly cute puppies and kittens popping out of packets of biscuits was going to be a winner for their client. In a Mirror article at the time, it said:
“The new adverts are using the power of kittens and puppies to get you to buy their biscuits. The “sweeet” campaign shows a set of adorable puppies emerging from inside a digestive packet. The tag line says it all: “The crumbly cuddle of McVitie’s”.” McVities went on to use kittens, piglets, and ducklings in the same way.
Another creative team somewhere else decided that Phillip Schofield looking adoringly at a cockapoo pup, and gently blowing on his sweet little head of downy fluff would send people hurtling to We Buy Any Car to sell their vehicles instead of part exchanging them.
There were five puppies in the studio on the day of the six-hour shoot (one apparently had a wee in Phillip’s slipper) and all the puppies used were just six weeks old.
There’s even a TV ad running at the moment for a company called TaxScouts which features Milo the pug (real name Chucky). The ad created by LaGuarda, a digital brand and marketing consultancy, filmed it in Amsterdam due to UK lockdown. It features a woman called Sarah who is in her kitchen holding a bag of dog food, her chubby pug at her feet. Sarah’s hearing about how the nightmare of sorting out her self-assessment tax return can be sorted by this company for a flat fee. She’s so enthralled by how easy it sounds that she mindlessly continues pouring the dog food into the dog bowl without looking. By the end of the ad, surprise surprise, there is a thigh-high mountain of dog food in front of her and no sign of poor Milo, who has been buried in the kibble.
The power to do harm
The appeal of using animals in advertising is as old as the medium itself. The problem is that advertisers and creatives are still failing to grasp the potential harm they have the power to do when it comes to using real animals in advertising. Naturally, they assure us that no harm comes to any animals used in this way, but today there are growing numbers of people who feel it is exploitative. As well as the potential to give members of the public worrying examples of how to treat animals and help propagate the idea that animals are just a commodity that we can use at will, it can have a more sinister subliminal side effect.
In recent years, there has been a prolific use of brachycephalic (‘short’ head, flat-faced) dog breeds including Bulldogs, Pugs and French Bulldogs across everything from greetings cards, mugs, T-shirts, and cushion covers to online banners and TV ads. Their seemingly adorable squishy faces may make consumers swoon, but for many this merchandising has become a tipping point that has seen them go online immediately to seek out those specific breeds and satisfy their urge to have a puppy. This has led to a catastrophic increase in the low welfare breeding of dogs in general, but with some of the worst examples seen in these brachycephalic breeds.
Cashing in on painful deformities
In fact, did you know there are now so-called ‘fertility and artificial insemination’ clinics springing up all over the UK to cash in on this trend? It’s an industry that is at present unregulated, rarely has any veterinary involvement, and many of the puppies that are being created as a result have what can only be described as horrific, life-threatening deformities because, and let this sink in, that’s what some buyers find incredibly appealing. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the vets that have to perform excruciating and expensive surgeries on these breeds, often soon after they have been purchased, just so that they’re able to breathe normally.
Advertising can have exactly the same detrimental effects of creating dog breed ‘trends’ with consumers when it comes to puppy purchasing as some Instagram ‘celebs’ have when trotting out their accessory-pup selfies to millions of devoted followers.
Today, small rescue shelters in particular are on their knees trying to pick up the pieces of ill thought through puppy purchasing and eyewatering veterinary bills, just to rehabilitate unwanted and damaged dogs and puppies.
Then there are the commissioning editors, desperate for television content, who are equally as guilty when it comes to the thoughtless and often unethical use of dogs in TV shows to get those highly prized rating figures. The use of animals in entertainment is without doubt a separate but important discussion in itself.
Of course, it isn’t just flat-faced breeds of dogs – and cats for that matter – that are a huge cause for concern for animal welfare organisations and vets, but they are by far the most heart-breaking result of breeding for looks rather than functionality.
I would urge brand managers, creative directors and TV executives to read this excellent article from the British Veterinary Association in 2018.
Do try this at home
To anyone out there considering the use of a flat-faced breed in their advertising and marketing could I politely suggest that you first place a pillow over your face and try breathing like that for the next 24 hours, while attempting any form of physical exercise. You may then start to recognise the dilemma of dogs with nostrils so pinched that they struggle to breathe. Then I recommend standing in a sauna for a while (still with that pillow over your face) and try to regulate your body temperature while gasping for breath through your mouth. I haven’t even started on the multiple folds of ‘funny and cute’ excess skin weighing on your face and neck that often suffer painful infections. And if you happen to be a female used for breeding God help you. The likelihood that you can give birth to pups with disproportionately large heads naturally, without surgical intervention, is alarmingly low.
There are an increasing number of animal advocates who believe that people deliberately breeding dogs with such difficult and painful conditions should be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act for wilful and deliberate acts of cruelty. I’m one of them. So, when advertisers perpetuate the problem, I see a red line being crossed. The advertising industry has always prided itself on the role of research, but even a cursory Google of the well-publicised issues relating to brachycephalic dogs (and cats) should make any responsible brand steer clear of using these breeds as selling tools.
It doesn’t have to be this way
Finally, on a positive note, an excellent example of a brand capturing public imagination with an adorable canine is the fabulous campaign by The AA featuring Tucker the dog – a woolly, floppy mass of personality. He is, quite simply, adorable. Tucker wants to listen to cool music, and feel the wind blowing on his face on a road trip – that feeling of freedom that we’re all pretty desperate for right now. The real beauty of Tucker is that he isn’t a real dog, he’s a puppet. Created by communications agency adam&eveDDBA this team have been innovative and truly creative.
Other than providing a positive and compelling reason to choose the AA for breakdown cover, the use of Tucker won’t elicit a subliminal message to the public to go out and get a pup just like him – not unless they merchandise Tucker as a collectible toy which, by the way, huge numbers of the public have been begging them to do, and which may now be in the pipeline. Tucker has given us something to smile about during the pandemic, including many in the animal welfare arena.
For me, an advertising/campaigning hybrid, Tucker is a wonderful example of excellent brand messaging, beautifully executed, and with no canine welfare downside – a real breath of fresh air.