Caninus Sellus : Dogs in Advertising

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

 

dogs1Dogs and children—they get us every time. Or do they? All babies may be adorable, but not all children are cute. The personalities of some are lackluster; the cuteness of others contrived.

It’s different with dogs. They don’t have to be cute, in the classic sense. But they pique our interest. Even people who don’t want dogs, or who don’t like dogs, like to look at dogs. We find them compelling.

To find out why this is, and why dogs work in advertising, Blitz spoke to University of British Columbia Professor of Psychology and renowned dog expert Stanley Coren. Dr. Coren is host of the Life Network’s Good Dog!, and the best-selling author of 17 books, including Why We Love the Dogs We Do, The Intelligence of Dogs, and How to Speak Dog.

Blitz   What is the psychological appeal of dogs in advertising?

Stanley Coren      The same thing that’s appealing about children. Dogs have been designed, by us through breeding, to appeal to us through their juvenile characteristics. They have the push nose and big eyes the way children do, and the response to that—our desire to take care of them, is wired into us.

The dogs that produce that response most strongly are those that have broad faces, long ears—as opposed to prick ears, and a ‘stop’ on the muzzle—where the muzzle takes a sharp upturn to the forehead. So the dogs that would most appeal are Beagles, retrievers, spaniels etc—not Rottweilers.

B        And the use of dogs in visual communications makes the message more appealing?

SC     There’s some scientific evidence of that. One study that looked at the acceptance value by people of products, found that introducing a visual of a dog in TV ads produced a 7% increase in acceptance of the product. It made no difference what the product was. Freud noted that the presence of dogs in his office made kids feel safe, and kept his Chow Chow in his office when he was seeing children.

B        So people instinctively respond positively to dogs, as opposed to reacting with fear.

SC     Fear is cultural or learned. And dogs are not wild animals. Man created dog. I don’t necessary agree with the DNA evidence that says that dogs have been with us for 125,000 years. But the paleontological evidence is clear—dogs have been domesticated for 14,000 years. And if you remember that we didn’t have agriculture until 10,000 years ago, that means that dogs were with us before we knew how to grow our own food. No animal has had a longer contract with human beings.

So the presence of a familiar, non-threatening dog increases everyone’s feelings of safety and security. From an advertiser’s point of view, that’s a warm feeling that will transfer to a product.

It’s the same kind of rationale that goes behind using children. In general, seeing children tends to produce a warm response.  There is a form of learning that leads to emotional responses. It’s called Classical Conditioning—you see a porcupine, you know the spines could hurt you, you feel fear and every time you see a porcupine image you’ll remember that fear. The sight of dogs or children produces the same effect, only with the warm response—whether you put their images with chain saws or perfume.

Advertisers want two things—to have their products remembered and to have positive associations attached to those products. Anything that will do that will work. Dogs do that. Cats don’t. Even though domestic cats have round faces, they still have cat faces and pricked ears. And cats are a bit more threatening.

The use of dogs and children in advertising often seems gratuitous, but it’s not. Because every time you use a kid or a dog, you increase product appeal. It’s the same logic as using beautiful women to sell clothes. Advertising is all about emotional manipulation. You need a jolt of positive association to appeal to the reader or viewer. And it’s not product-specific. Kids and dogs have been used to sell cigarettes and politicians. Some of the first animated characters in advertising were dogs—there was an ad where the dog was fetching Lucky Strikes. But it has to have cultural acceptance too.

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B        The developmental differences between dogs and children, though, make for a more interesting dynamic.

SC     The Super Dogs—Poodles, Border Collies, German Shepherds, are the dogs in the top 25% of the IQ range. They’re emotionally equivalent to 2 ½ year-old children. All other dogs are equal to 2 year-olds. But dogs have the social consciousness of 14 year-old humans. They need to be part of a group and do what the group is doing. They want three things—food, safety and social interaction. They will do anything for that and learn very quickly what they have to do to get it.

B        What about cultural considerations? Some cultures despise dogs; the Japanese love mechanical dogs.

SC     The Japanese have two issues. One is the fascination with technology. The other is space and economics—unless you’re wealthy enough to have a large space, you can’t have a dog. But the Japanese desperately love dogs.

Then you look at China and Vietnam, where dogs are seen as an efficient source of protein and are farmed for food. Fundamentalist Muslims believe that dogs are unclean. But when people come to Canada from cultures where there’s an aversion to having dogs in the home, their children and grandchildren fully accept them.

B        Would you agree that the concept of hearth and home involves pet ownership? Maybe our instincts tell us that a secure and comfortable home must include a dog.

SC     The dog is the eternal child, a non-threatening being that we can care for. It also provides unconditional positive regard. The dog will always love you and that is a great thing for psychological and physical health. And people know that—40% of Canadians have at least one dog, and 30% of Canadians would like a dog.

B        So in this increasingly hectic, stressful and unhappy society, the idea of a happy, honest and loving creature applied to a product will make consumers believe that the product could contribute to their happiness.

SC     Correct. My opinion, based on the evidence of the human response to dogs, is that putting dogs in advertising is beneficial.

Case in Point

Going to the Dogs: How Fido Bred a Brand

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There are a lot of successful branding stories to tell, but one of the more memorable might be Microcell’s launching a wireless service, calling it Fido, and inevitably, inextricably, tying its identity and communication program to dogs. How, one might wonder, did this come to pass?

“In 1996, Microcell was launching a new wireless service, but it needed a brand name,” explains Fido’s Director of Marketing, Patrick Hadsepantelis. “The name had to be consumer-friendly. At that time, in the wireless category, we had Bell, BC Tel, Telus and Cantel, and wireless was more targeted to business. Those were very corporate brands that didn’t resonate with consumers, and Microcell was launching a consumer-focused brand to democratize wireless in Canada.”

One might assume that exhaustive studies and surveys were conducted. Nope. The name was found through simple brainstorming.

“The name was chosen based on common-sense criteria,” says Raynald Petit of Montreal’s Bos Advertising. “With Microsoft, MicroTech, MicroThis and MicroThat, we know that using the Microcell name to launch a wireless service wouldn’t grab consumer attention. We needed a name that would really stand out. We looked at a lot of names—from plants, vegetables, minerals, animals. Fido became absolutely obvious. We were launching in Quebec, then in the rest of Canada, so the name had to work equally well in French and English, and have a universal cultural appeal. Fido comes from ‘fidelity’, so it means the same thing in French and English. The name had to be friendly, short and easy to remember. The word Fido made perfect sense because the phones, and the service, follow you everywhere you go. And dogs instantly conjure positive feelings, so the name resonates with people on an emotional level.”

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Once the name was settled, there was the task of developing the image materials and the advertising. “We had to ask ourselves what the role of dogs would be,” continues Petit. “At first, we said that we would use the name but no dogs. But we quickly changed our minds because the use of dogs makes it so easy to draw parallels with Fido’s services. And we decided to go with all kinds of dogs because there are all kinds of clients and client needs. The reason they choose Fido is that it can be adaptable to situations, as can dogs. If you have a mascot, it’s tough to stay with that. So the decision to use all kinds of dogs was a key turning point in our communications strategy.”

For Hadsepantelis, all advertising messages have to be in line with Fido’s promise of being honest, straightforward, simple, hip, different.

“We’ve brought a lot of innovations to wireless,” he says. “We offered free colour display and voice mail when it wasn’t available anywhere else. We introduced per-second billing, a Free Day package, and the Fido-to-Fido plan, where calls between Fido customers are free. The brand is street-smart and innovative. It’s much more than the dog imagery, but that imagery fits well with the youthful, spirited type of mindset that we appeal to.”

Any doubts about this strategy were quickly dispelled by the huge success of Fido’s first campaign—the Look-Alike campaign, where dogs were matched with people who looked like them, or vice versa.

fido3“People immediately embraced the concept,” recalls Hadsepantelis. “It was clear that we had something very powerful because, in those images, there’s a smart little promise that Fido cares about its customers. Dogs portray that friendliness. It shows that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and that we’re accessible. The very name has warmth and humour, and that’s important. A lot of corporate brands are nowhere near as customer-focused.”

“The role of the dog depends on the evolution of the market situation and what we want to communicate,” notes Petit. “Until this summer, dogs were at the core of our communications—on TV, print, billboard, packaging, collateral. Then there was a marketing decision to come up with new plans on a regular basis, and we were looking for something new for TV. So we created the Fake President campaign to launch new offerings in a simple way. The core was not a dog, but the ‘president’ introducing new products in an absurd situation. The dog was just in the background. It worked very well.”

Hadsepantelis is quick to point out the dogs are never used as a gimmick “We use different types of dogs because we have different kinds of customers and our customers have different choices of handsets, plans and packages. But we don’t use dogs gratuitously. There has to be a role for them, relating to the product. And people know that. And, now, when they hear the name Fido, they may or may not think about dogs, but they associate it with wireless. Fido is a stand-alone name with very fast recall. We have exceeded typical norms. And every time we use the dogs in messages portraying something innovative or different, we fuel the brand.”

fido5Hadsepantelis also notes that there has been occasional talk of getting away from the dog imagery, but the decision has always been to remain canine-centred. Aside from the fact that it’s not good to fix something that ain’t broke—Fido reached the one-million-customer mark faster than any other Canadian wireless carrier—he says: “When we do campaigns with the dogs, our tracking and measuring is so positive that we don’t need to leave it. The dog icon has helped us build such great brand recognition that we need only nurture it.”

Petit agrees. “Over the last seven years, dogs have become the icon that makes Fido stand apart from its competition. That icon has been the continuity in our advertising—it’s a very important part of the Fido image and always will be.”

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On the Dog Park & Self-Expression

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Blitz Magazine, November 2008

I’m very fortunate to live in a community which has an off-leash dog park—a 13-acre dog park, complete with five running fields, two beaches and endless supplies of plastic bags (biodegradable, of course). Given that Vancouver is a very doggy city, this park is extremely popular; hundreds of people pass through there every day. It is a microcosm of society, in that it is used by people from all walks of life and socio-economic levels, of all ages, ethnicities and nationalities. And I’ve been observing what choices and styles of dog ownership say about their owners.

For example, I get talking to a guy with a very large, unusual-looking dog. I asked him about it and he proudly stated: “This is an Argentinean pit-bull. It is the largest  pit-bull you can buy!” What he thought he was communicating was: “I’m a tough, strong man who fears nothing!” But I looked at the baby in the stroller he was pushing and noted that what he was really communicating was: “I’m extraordinarily stupid.”

A girl appears in the parking lot. She has a Chihuahua. In her purse. She finally frees the poor thing and I notice that she’s about 16. And pregnant. I’m not sure what she is trying to communicate. Perhaps: “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” Or, “I’m so into accessories that I just have to have a baby.” Or “My parents are extraordinarily stupid.”

A woman appears with a tiny fluffy dog. The dog is wearing a faux fur coat and a bejeweled collar and has a ribbon pinned to his head. I look at the woman and see that she’s had major work done. No matter what she does, her breasts will never jiggle. And if her diction isn’t perfect, her forehead will split open. So what is she trying to communicate? “I believe that we should use medical technology to achieve perfection?” “My sense of self-worth is based solely on my appearance?” Or just “I believe that my dog should look as silly as I?”

I see a big hulking macho man with an 8-lb miniature Daschund. Another with six big ol’ Heinz 57s who are missing eyes, ears, legs. A woman who says: “I don’t know what his breed is, I love him anyway.” These people aren’t trying to communicate anything through their dogs. But they are saying much about themselves. And it’s all good.

Then I start thinking about how, for many people, everything they own is a form of communication. There are pimp or hood wannabes who drive around in gleaming sports cars (check it–black only) with hip-hop music playing so loudly that it blows pedestrians’ eardrums. They’re trying to communicate that they’re cool. Not.

I drop in HomeNonSense and find a woman making a big noisy show of purchasing four five-foot ‘crystal’ lamps topped with hot-pink sateen shades trimmed in gold and festooned with plastic beads. She wants everyone around her to know that she has good taste. Uh….

There are people who use their children to communicate how unique they are. They name them after cities, states, countries, obscure biblical characters, plants and fruit. (Lately, my favourite is McKenzie which, loosely translated, means ‘Kenneth’s son’. So if the child’s father’s name is Richard, the kid could, one day, ask ‘Who the heck is Kenneth?’)

There’s a guy up the hill from me who’s building a 40,000 square-foot home. Oh, and a 2,000 square-foot guest cottage. He has one wife and two teen-agers. Why is he doing this? To tell everyone that he has money? (Note to Mr. Nouveau Riche: Money is supposed to be ‘quiet’.) There are people who wear their political opinions on their cars, or display it on t-shirts, jackets, houses and front lawns. And people who plaster their vehicles with signs and stickers reading ‘Jesus Lives’ and ‘Jesus is Your Saviour’ and Jesus is this and that and blah blah. Note to Thumpers: it was Jesus who said you’re supposed to keep your religion to yourself.

SUVs have magically disappeared from many neighbourhoods. I suspect that his has less to do with the price of fuel, and more to do with drivers wanting others to know that they’re ‘Green’. At the beach, I see tattoo-covered bodies. At the gym, women in full make-up, matching clothes and jewelry. Everywhere, people zoned out while they play with electronic toys. And YouTube’s slogan is ‘Broadcast Yourself.’

Not only has communication gone wonky, but it has taken on a sort of desperation. People are falling over themselves to tell others about who they are. I think it’s because face-to-face conversation is becoming a thing of the past.

I have close friends whose faces I may see once a year. I haven’t seen the art director of this magazine in two years. Email, texting and the telephone take care of everyone’s communication needs. We hear that marriages crumble because couples aren’t home at the same time and, when they are, they’re too busy to talk. I spoke to a prostitute last year, who told me that many of her clients don’t want sex at all: they want to talk. In business, employees so resent having to constantly waste time in meetings that they make jokes about management’s insistence on face-time and buzz them around the Internet. At the social level, raves provide a place where the music is so loud that conversation is out of the question. Teen-agers deface buildings with their art. How often do you host a dinner party, or get invited to one? Where do you hear new music? On the ‘Net. Do you have to attend a school every day to get a degree? Nope—you can do much of it on the ‘Net.

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For all the good it’s done, for business, education and networking, I worry that the Internet is turning into a pernicious force, sucking us all into a world of silence. Where, if you want to say something, you have to type it. If you want to meet Mister or Miss or Mizz Right, you have to post a static image and write your feelings. But humans are animals. Social animals. We need body language. We need to speak to each other, and watch each other’s faces for reaction. We need the back-and-forth, the thrust and parry, and the quick wit that goes with conversation. We need to hear guffaws, exclamations and laughter.

I think we need more dog parks. It’s the dogs that necessitate attendance and then teach us how to play nice. That what we look like or wear or drive is irrelevant to who we are (and, often, communicates the wrong thing). That spontaneous interaction is essential to our well-being. That it’s easy to go to someplace that’s busy and crowded and just talk to people.