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Animal Instincts

By Gil Sennett · June 15th, 2000 · Ad Nauseam

When it comes to company spokespeople, it appears we actually prefer animals to humans. And the trend isn't only hot now. Since the dawn of advertising, it never really cooled off.

Consider this hypothetical: Company X puts out a new line of mustard. Time to advertise. To introduce the product, they create ads that show someone interacting with shoppers at the local grocery. Three choices to front the campaign: a button-down company type, a quirky actor or Arnie, the aardvark that loves mustard. Which do you think they'll choose? Look around the TV dial. Arnie-types abound. You'll be amazed just how many spokes-animals there are.

The big question: Why? Do we trust the friendly bunny, frog or other small-brained organism more than the company chairman or a pretty-faced actor? I say yes. When it comes to perfect strangers, we trust what we like, that which amuses us. If I may be so bold as to stereotype, most CEOs aren't nearly as cute as a lovable pig. They also don't smell as good.

The quirky actor types can be cute and lovable, but choosing them can mean segregating your markets. You have to choose gender, race and other detailed characteristics for your product line.

By doing so, you may turn some people off or give them the wrong impression of your product.

Ah, but the aardvark. He speaks to everyone.

History has shown us plenty of examples of humans being the lesser beasts.

Arguably, the first animal icon was Borden's Elsie the Cow. Around since 1939, Elsie was so popular she had a movie deal within two years of her ad debut.

Tony the Tiger came next, around 1952. How "grrrrreat" was he? He sold cereal to my parents, to my generation and likely to any children I might have. You don't see that kind of staying power with people.

Charlie the Tuna was an interesting choice and a true creation of his time. He was a beatnik tuna who wanted to make it in a can of Star-Kist, but he never made the cut. You don't often see an icon in the form of the product. It's a little unsettling, much like the talking M&Ms or the singing California Raisins.

Four words: Spuds McKenzie, alcoholic dog. Budweiser beer must be considered the trailblazer in the spokes-animal trend. Save for the "Wassup" guys, have they come up with any ad campaign that doesn't involve animals?

I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what was happening in the world in 1993 that allowed a bunch of Coca-Cola-swilling polar bears to capture our attention. It must have something to do with siege at Waco.

And lest you think this trend has mellowed, see the ubiquitous Taco Bell chihuahua, the Bud lizards and the Honda dog-people, who flat-out terrify my wife. They're dogs, but they have hands and wear suits!

The marketing execs opting for animals probably realize there are residual benefits to cute furry icons, too. You are much more likely to see the Bud frogs on a T-shirt than, say, the Maytag man. In fact, if you want to find a truly merchandisable human character, you have to go back to Clara Peller, Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" lady of the mid-1980s. The new 7-Up guy comes close, but his antics are more marketable than his image. Case in point: the millions of "Make 7/Up Yours" shirts turning up all over the country.

The current Screen Actors Guild union protest certainly is not the reason for the recent trend of spokes-animals, but it could be the impetus that keeps the trend alive for years to come. Can't get good actors? Just hire animals. They're a hell of a lot cheaper, and they're less likely to crap on the set.



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