Advertising In The Jungle
by Chad Rueffert

Gerbils, ostriches, frogs, lizards, alligators, tigers, ferrets, Chihuahuas, cats and squirrels.  This is just a short list of the animals that were featured in advertising in the last few years.  And while the use of animals as product promoters is not a new thing, it is definitely the HOT thing, having replaced other icons such as company CEO’s and celebrities as the number one way to make an impact on the consumer.

This is not just a short-term trend.  In 1997, New York research firm Video Storyboard Tests, in their annual survey of the most popular commercials, noted that ten of the top 25 commercials featured animals.  In that same survey they found that CEO’s, celebrities and hidden-camera testimonials were the least persuasive.

The trend has continued over the last four years.  Most notable for the sheer number of commercials are the Budweiser Frogs and the Taco Bell Chihuahua.  Both campaigns have been tabled, possibly permanently, but not before they milked almost every ounce of brand awareness from their anthropomorphic icons.  And it’s not just national advertisers who have tapped into this trend.  Local companies such as American Furniture Warehouse have been using animals in their ads for years.

It’s a little disturbing that talking frogs and other animated animals have come to hold more regard in the public’s mind than a customer testimonial or a message from a company’s CEO.  Granted, there is nothing unusually entertaining about these types of ads, but they generally impart a great deal more information about the product, which in the past was the way consumers made decisions on which product to buy.  Advertisers today are banking on the fact that consumers will buy based on image and that ongoing name recognition results in more sales than feature and benefit based advertising.

In an interview with Fortune Magazine, David Vadehra, president of Video Storyboard Tests, said this about the Budweiser Frogs.  “What are you going to tell people about Budweiser that they don’t already know?  Nothing.  So all you want to do is remind consumers in a creative and original way that it is still the ‘King of Beers.’”

That may actually be true for household names such as Budweiser, whose products rarely undergo significant change.  But the Taco Bell Chihuahua did little to increase the sales at the national fast food chain.  Company executives have realized that what drives customers through their doors is advertising based around their food and prices.  Offer a chalupa for 99 cents and your revenues go up.  Spend millions on computer generated spots featuring Godzilla and a tiny dog and all you’ve done is spent millions to entertain people in the few minutes between sitcoms.

What can the local advertiser learn from the successes and mistakes of national brands using animals in their advertising?  I think there are several key things.

1)  Animals attract attention.  Using animals as attention getters is a valid visual theory, especially with younger audiences.  It’s no coincidence that Disney’s mainstays are talking mice, ducks and dogs.

2)  Animals are great for symbolic messages.  Associating your company with a lion signifies strength.  Dogs symbolize loyalty.  Cats are often used to show independence.  If you have a particularly complex, difficult or emotional message to get across, using an animal can often help make your point.  NxTrend, a local software company whose competitors were unreliable and giving the industry a bad reputation, used a Harlequin Great Dane in their print campaigns as both an attention-getter and a symbol of their experience and permanence in the industry.  EDS, in their Superbowl-suported campaign, used the visual of cowboys herding cats to explain the difficulty and complexity of what they do.  Then they followed with a parody of the Pamplona Running of the Bulls using squirrels as the Spaniard-chasers to symbolize the need for large companies to take smaller, quicker competitors seriously.

3)  Animals are difficult to deal with.  “Squirrels are not to be messed with.  We found that out,” said Dean Hanson, art director at Fallon Minneapolis who created the spot for EDS.  Two crewmembers on the shoot were attacked and needed stitches. 

4)  Using animals is expensive.  Whether you use computer generated animals or the real thing, animal actors are going to cost you.  Animation of the sort it takes to create a Budweiser Frog starts in the 6-figure range.  In most cases with live animals, you may have to have representatives from a humane society type organization to ensure the proper treatment.  Outpost.com, who created a spot in 1999 featuring gerbils being shot out of a cannon, received reprimands from the ASPCA for portraying violence to animals, despite the fact that all the little rodents were shown landing safely.  On the other hand, they received 13,000 emails during the 10-week campaign and 60 percent of them were positive.  Better yet, the company ended the year with about $85 million in revenue, an almost 400% increase.

Animals in advertising have been proven to be effective, but are, on the whole, expensive, difficult and not for the timid.  If you feel animals can play a role in promoting your products, be sure to consult with and hire the best professionals who have a background in working with our furry friends.  And remember this advice from John O’Hagan of Hungry Man.  “Squirrels can jump high and aim for the neck.”