“Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects
If adverts are an intermediary between people/consumers and objects/products then, by (il)logical deduction, adverts are pets. I know you’re thinking that I’ve finally lost it, that I’ve cracked up. That statement, however, seems less mental when you consider how many advertising campaigns and brand logos feature animals; Barclay’s horse, PG Tips’ monkey, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Andrex’ puppy, Frosties’ tiger, Playboy’s bunny, Lacoste’s alligator, Le Coq Sportif’s cockerel, Penguin’s penguin, Dove’s dove, Jaguar’s jaguar and Puma’s puma to name just a few.
Animals have been used to carry metaphorical and symbolic meaning since, well, forever. The first caveman paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Roman and Greek mythology, Medieval heraldry, horoscopes, artistic iconography and now brands and adverts all use animals as a way of articulating complex ideas and adding a layer of meaning. Animals can aid people’s memory of a brand or product’s qualities without the need to bash them over the head with a brand proposition. A Platypus is the new mascot for First Direct as ‘The Unexpected Bank.’ A bunny is a sexually suggestive (“at it like rabbits”) symbol for Playboy without being overt. A jaguar is the perfect metaphor for a car that prowls about the urban jungle as it’s engine purrs smugly.
AMV/BBDO freaked me out in my first ever interview with the question, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” They weren’t just trying to keep me on my toes, they were trying to see how good I was at constructing a metaphor. I probably should have said a platypus rather than a puppy. Brands are metaphors for inanimate products and intangible services. Animals are living breathing metaphors. Their marriage is one of common sense.
A ‘Woof’Wagen over a ‘Volks/Folks’Wagen.
Other than that dogs look hilarious with their chops flapping in the wind in a moving car, Volkswagen’s Woofwagen campaign by Adam&EveDDB centers on that old saying that dogs are like their owners. Put different breeds of dogs in all the different car models that Volkswagen have on offer and you have the message ‘There’s a Volkswagen for all of us’. Volkswagen can broadcast that they have many different cars whilst portraying a unifying message: Variety is the spice of life and variety enables us to define ourselves. Our dogs and our cars are suited to us, as the soundtrack ‘Me and You’ by Barry Louis Polisar reminds us, and luckily there is the breed of dog and breed of Volkswagen car for each and every one of us.
The campaign, like many adverts featuring animals (The Bear and Hare John Lewis advert, also by Adam&EveDDB, being the most obvious) pulls at our ‘awww’ muscles. This isn’t just because dogs are cute. It’s because we can load animals with more emotional energy than we can humans. We are sceptical of human emotion, particularly when it is acted out in adverts. Their happy little faces, their tongues lolling out in 60mph winds are somehow more expressive than some loony tune grinning moronically and smugly as he winds his brand new VW around country roads.
We realise how much we love our dogs, how much we go through life with them by our sides. Oh yeah, shit. We do a lot with our cars too. People judge us by our cars as much as by which dog is sitting in the backseat. This advert is perhaps the truest manifestation of Baudrillard’s statement: ‘Volks’, meaning folks or people, has been transformed into ‘Woof’ signifying dog or pet. “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.”
Human + Car = Volkswagen
Pet + Car = Woofwagen
Car <—-> Pet <—-> Human
So what if Volkswagen had decided to represent the diversity of their range by putting different people in their cars? We might have been judgemental of the human equivalent of the Afghan Hound in a red open-topped sports car. We might have considered the human equivalent to be a bit of a poser or a cliché (Bridget Jones’ mini break moment above sprung to mind). Similarly the dreadlocked creature (please comment if you know the breed) is wholly appropriate to be sitting in the hippy Volkswagen Beetle. Even if we hate hippies or posers in sports cars, we still liked the dogs that represented them in the ad.
When animals appear in adverts there is usually something a bit more interesting at play than mere association, metaphor and pulling on our ‘awwww’ muscles. There’s a reason why you can take a buzzfeed quiz telling you what your ‘Inner Dog Breed’ is (courtesy of Volkswagen). There’s a reason why most viral memes and youtube clips feature animals. There’s a reason why a Guardian article exists on ‘The Growing Economy of Cat Videos.’ This is, quite simply, because we almost prefer animals to humans.
We trust animals more than humans
“The pathos-laden presence of a dog, a cat, a tortoise or a canary is a testimonial to a failure of the inter-human relationship and an attendant recourse to a narcissistic domestic universe where subjectivity finds fulfilment in the most quietistic way.” – Baudrillard
‘The Cat Spinster Lady’ is a fantastic stereotype. To be honest, I reckon I wouldn’t mind being one. The tragedy is that ‘The Cat Spinster Lady’ is portrayed as an eccentric loner, who, too bizarre to hook a fella and have children, has ended up filling the void of human affection in her life with tens of cats. She gives them all different personalities and names, she is acutely aware of how they interact with each other. She settles their clawing scraps with each other like a mother would bang her children’s heads together. She watches out for the weaker one in the pack, making sure it has extra food. She knows which one is a bit naughty and enjoys shredding the curtains.
Animals are passive receptacles for our emotions (The link here is for my good friend Joel’s piece on Cat Cafés, possibly the best description of cats ever written). We can project our feelings onto animals. This is why talking dogs, donkeys, meerkats and ‘Grumpy Cats’ are almost larger than life than real humans. We give animals dependable caricatures and turn our furry four-legged friends into psychologically predictable sort-of-human-beings. Grumpy Cat isn’t really grumpy. We have projected a human emotion onto the animal. We can put words into their mouths.
Humans, however, respond with their own words and their own feelings. They aren’t passive receptacles. Humans formulate their own meanings, they have their own emotions. Humans respond to things. Humans can hold back emotions too, they can say one thing and mean another. An animal, however, can only ‘say’ what we want it to ‘say’.
Perhaps, consequently, we are more likely to trust a talking cat telling us to ‘Carpe Diem’ than we would a human being. O2’s ‘Be More Dog’ campaign tells us to embrace, with the mindless enthusiasm of a dog chasing a ball, new mobile technology, to sign up to O2 Priority, to keep texting and mobile internet surfing without due care or cynicism.
If a person came on screen and told us to seize the day on behalf of O2 we probably would have a degree of cynicism. Humans have motives. Animals don’t. If my one-eyed geriatric cat pissed out of his litter tray then I wouldn’t think that he is doing this to annoy me. If my boyfriend pissed out of the toilet then I would probably question his motives (unless he was really, really drunk and then I would probably consider him to be something of an animal). This is because we know (or at least I hope we know) that animals actually do not have the same complex psychological mechanisms as our own. Animals are motivated by food, sex, a tummy rub and that’s about it. When an advert puts words into an animal’s mouth you forget about the human aspect of what it’s communicating. It puts one more dividing line between the marketeers in the boardroom talking about brand propositions and USPs and you as a potential consumer sitting in front of your TV. “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.”
I would argue that mobile phone providers, like O2, have experienced the “failure of the inter-human relationship,” despite many of their brand propositions harping on about customer service and connecting people. This isn’t O2’s fault. Like as with energy, internet and public transport, consumers do not want to pay their mobile phone bills. These kinds of things are seen as ‘negative purchases.’ We expect to flick on a light switch without having to pay for it. We don’t see how people can put a price on texting your friends, but they have to. This, unfortunately, makes these kinds of brands seem untrustworthy in the eyes of the consumer. They’d rather listen to a cat giving them a pep talk about getting out there and enjoying life than they would some crusty CEO with pound signs in his eyes.
Similarly Aleksandr is so loveable that people actually buy cuddly toy versions of the comparethemarket.com meerkat. He’s made buying insurance feel less boring and less like you aren’t actually buying anything tangible. So much so that Aleksandr’s autobiography A Simples Life: The Life And Times of Aleksadr Orlov had more orders before publication than the life stories of Tony Blair, Cheryl Cole, Russell Brand or Dannii Minogue. The Go Compare man, Gio Compario, by contrast, is fucking annoying. Simples.
The Go Compare man even received death threats. I think we all would have liked him to have been mauled by a pack of wolves in the advert below, but I can see why they thought that Sue Barker would be more ‘on brand’ and resonate better with their target audience.
Andrex: Because it’s embarrassing to talk about wiping your arse.
I used to feel a bit peeved when the Andrex Puppy would bound onto my screen in one of the 130 ads the little fucker has featured in. I used to think, “Jesus, do they really think we are going to choose Andrex over a cheaper brand just because they use a cutesy iccle puppy in their advertising?” Turns out yes. Yes we will.
When JWT invented Andrex’ mascot in 1972 they were crafting an elaborate metaphor to give bog roll meaning beyond ‘the stuff we wipe our arses with’. Soft, loyal, a little bit mischievous but ultimately endearing is the perfect brand image to craft for bog roll. 1 in 3 people who buy Andrex will not buy any other brand of toilet paper. In the UK alone they sell 1.5million rolls of the stuff each day. That’s enough to circle the earth one and a half times in shit tickets. When I see a labrador retriever I think of Andrex. Andrex is the puppy. Andrex without the puppy would be unthinkable.
But, for some reason when the Andrex puppy bounds onto the screen I don’t think about the loo. In fact, when consumers were reminded of the fact that Andrex sold bog roll (you know, the stuff you wipe your arse with) in their ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign there was a bit of an outcry.
Vice’s Alex Miller hailed it as ‘The Worst Advertising Campaign in History.’ Personally I can think of much worse adverts (or not think of them – arguably the worst adverts are the ones that don’t even make an impression), but Mr Miller had a perfectly valid point. He objected to the inclusion of real people in adverts about shit tickets.
Remember: “Pets are indeed an intermediate category between human beings and objects.” When we find it hard to talk about something, like wiping our arses, we might get an animal to mediate the discussion, to sugarcoat what that object is actually used for.
About the farmer-type 13 seconds in: “This paternal nod from an earthy farmer type? A nod that advertisers normally use to reassure their customers that the sausages are organic is now being used to assure us that yes, those thick, working hands sometimes put down the shovel to fiddle with perforated paper so thin he can barely feel it between his calloused fingers.”
About the seductive woman 14 seconds in: “She’s a character straight from hell, a woman so depraved and overly sexualised that she even tries to turn wiping her arse into an erotic escapade. Imagine her beckoning you into the bathroom: “Oops, I left the door open and now my fake nail has burst through the seductively folded Andrex, I’m getting all dirty…” Jesus, this character is definitely the worst in this advert. No competition. I think she just made my dick grimace.”
The Andrex puppy has come to mediate our relationship with what is, quite frankly, a bit of a gross but necessary product. Its a strategy that Cushelle also adopted with their sickeningly cute koala bear and by Saatchi & Saatchi (Stolkholm) to flog Lambi.
To conclude, animals can help flog boring products that are otherwise difficult to sell. It’s hard to get interested about PG Tips’ teabags, but a bunch of monkeys drinking tea is much more exciting. A cute puppy accidentally unravelling all the toilet roll and sprawling it across the house is much better than asking people to describe how they use the product. We can refer to the product’s benefits by using an animal as a metaphor that is informative, tugs at our ‘awww’ muscle and makes things a bit more interesting. More importantly, an animal can do all these things much better than a human can simply because an animal will immediately appear to have fewer motives than a human. I’m fed up of skinny models telling me that ‘I’m worth it’ and celebrities telling me that if I drink Pepsi I’ll be like them. So bring on the cat videos. Bring on the talking dogs. Somebody get me a stuffed compare the meerkat for my birthday.
“The object is in fact the finest of domestic animals…In a word, it is a dog of which nothing remains but faithfulness. What is more, you can look at an object without it looking back at you. That is why everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects.” – Baudrillard