Animals in Ads: Welcome to Adland's Zoo
Agencies have always found that different animals imbue brands with different characteristics. We find out what and why
14 September 2023
We're all familiar with the Biblical and Koranic story of how Noah saved himself and examples of all the world's animals from a global deluge by loading them onto his ark. Subsequently advertising has plucked many of these species from the ark for use in campaigns - and it’s fair to say that at times they are the ones being the saviours.
Emotions that animals can lend to brands
Superficially the reasons are familiar - in general (like most brand icons) they are an easy way to provide shortcuts to provide brands with feelings and emotions that they don't really have but we want consumers to believe that they do. Bishan Morgan, senior strategist at Wunderman Thompson, explains: “Duracell, where Bunny denotes energy and dynamism. Monkeys are associated with cheekiness and fun, which gives a sense of playfulness to Kellogg’s Coco Pops and shapes how the brand is understood in culture. For advertisers today, the personalities, attributes and connotations of animals are powerful ways to create meaning for brands.”
But the depth of their meaning goes a little deeper than just this. Owen Lee, chief creative officer at FCB London, says that as well as triggering an emotional response in human beings, they sidestep conversations around the right casting for the target audience and most importantly they create incredibly strong memory structures. “We know from working on Andrex just how powerful the puppy is for the brand. So much so that Labrador puppies throughout the UK are affectionately referred to as Andrex puppies and something like one in six households own a stuffed Andrex puppy - that’s branding you can only dream of,” he points out.
Let's start at the beginning...
The history of animals in ads goes back to the beginnings of advertising - in fact you could argue that their symbolism goes back further still. Morgan points out: “For centuries, animals have been used in storytelling and iconography for their rich symbolic value. Richard I was known as Richard the Lionheart for his military might, while the bald eagle was chosen to represent the United States as a symbol of freedom and courage, despite Benjamin Franklin’s concern that it was ‘a bird of bad moral character’. Many cultural associations and meanings with animals can be traced back to Aesop’s Fables, from viewing foxes as cunning tricksters to understanding wolves as dangerous and tyrannical.”
Esso's tiger ("Put a tiger in your tank") was a brand logo for the Exxon Mobil at the turn of the twentieth century but gained wider popularity in 1964 when McCann Erickson developed a campaign using the Tiger and the brand slogan. It was so popular that Time magazine declared 1964 to be "The Year of the Tiger" along Madison Avenue.
The Esso tiger and the more famous Kellogg's Frosties Tiger rubbed along at a similar time (Kellogg's had trademarked its tiger, which was created by Leo Burnett, in 1952) and peacefully, given that they operated in different markets. However things came to a head in 1996 when Exxon Mobil sought to expand into the convenience market with "Tiger Marts". Kellogg's accused the oil company of trademark infringement and the case went to the US Supreme Court before an undisclosed settlement was reached. Jungle warfare was thus avoided.
In these instances the Esso tiger was indicative of power, and Kellogg’s was more of a cuddly mischievous toy that children could relate to (although this was to prove problematic when concerns about the advertising of HFSS foods to children would come to the fore some years later).
Dan Hulse, chief strategy officer at St Luke's, agrees that animals are useful tools. “As a brand strategist, I’d like to think that we harness deep cultural and psychological insights to power creative work," he says. “But depressingly, bunging a puppy in the ad often gets a better result. Why? Two reasons spring to mind. The first is cultural. Animals are speedy shortcuts to the kind of meaning we want to fill brands with. You want bravery, wisdom, greed? There’s an animal for that. That’s why, when we wanted characters to symbolise freedom and encourage commuters out of their homes for South Western Railways, birds were a no-brainer.”
“The second reason is evolutionary,” Hulse continues. “Over hundreds of thousands of years our brains have evolved to pay special attention to animals. Either they’re small and cute (to our ancient brain, something we can catch and eat). Or they’re scary (and might eat us). Even if we’re encountering them as we scroll through our feed on social, our brains want us to stop and check them out. If the voice telling you the frosted flakes are “GRRREAT” belongs to a tiger, we are hard-wired not to ignore it.”
A creative solution
So while the links between some animals and some brands are clear (and don’t really provide planners or creatives to stretch their brains too hard), there are also other benefits that they can provide.
David Wigglesworth, executive creative director at Grey London, agrees that animals can sometimes be seen as an easy creative solution but when used to enhance a product's truth or to deepen an insight, they can be more powerful. “Think McVities Digestives "Kittens", it pulls the viewer in with all the adorable cuteness of little furr-balls climbing onto your break room table from the biscuit pack - before hard cutting to someone biting the biscuit when you have kittens on the mind, its dark as hell but you only ever finish the spots feeling warm and fuzzy and somehow wanting to eat a McVities,” he says.
Wigglesworth chose a hamster for a recent campaign for Pringles – he explains why: “On Pringles Multigrain, our task was to let people know that these Pringles taste just like the Original Pringles you know and love. But, with Multigrain, there's also something wonderfully different about them. We wanted to use an analogy of a common yet different household pet to bring this to life. It's this thing, you know, but with a surprising twist. We tried dogs, cats, goldfish, lizards, spiders and finally hamsters. Dogs and cats seemed too obvious a choice, but the less obvious pets didn't convey the idea simply enough. But our little hamster was the instant winner when he landed on the page.”
Similarly, FCB London’s Lee picked an unlikely choice for the agency’s Listerine ad (which had long used a mythical dragon). “Animals sell because people remember them. And that’s the hardest battle in advertising. Some people love our Listerine Donkey, some people hate it, (some want to debate why he’s Scottish), but they remember it and in categories where salience is everything, that’s gold,” he says.
Adding quirks or traits to animals in ads (such as the Listerine donkey’s broad Scottish accent) helps elevate them further from the, err, herd. While the Pringles hamster was unusual enough in a market that has been dominated by dogs, cats, horses and bears, Grey Wigglesworth’s wanted it to stand out even more. He explains: “We all know the context of a pet hamster - everyone has had one, and everyone has a funny hamster story. They're cute but not too cute. And their eyes feel like portals into a world of untold experience. The biggest key for us creatively was never to oversell the ‘wonderfully different’ element of our hamster.
“If they were a marvellous, furry little Elton John, we'd be overselling Pringles Multigrain and making regular Pringles seem less than. Also, it just wouldn't be funny if our hamster was genuinely great at music. We wanted to treat our hamster's little moment with utter reverence, but it felt more endearing to us that he wasn't a great singer - why should he be, it's an animal! But even the fact that this little guy is trying his best, that is wonderful enough. His little existential song should touch our hearts, make us feel empathy for him and leave us moved. So moved, that we will never forget that there was something wonderfully different about this product.”
Has adland exhausted the animal kingdom possibilities?
With scientists estimating there are 8.7 million animal species in the world there are plenty of animals for agencies to choose from. But Camila Toro, senior planner at VCCP, which is famous for its meerkats, O2 dogs and Virgin Media goats and Highland cattle, wonders whether brands are exhausting the animal kingdom possibilities – something that social media has accelerated.
She says: “Platforms like TikTok offer an avenue for quick, relatable content with a need for brand humanisation. Animal characters have become a readily available solution for connection due to their appeal across audiences,” she says. “As brands adopt animals as their messaging vehicles, another pertinent question does arise: which creature is the right fit? There's a finite amount of animal traits to dip into when delivering a message. Striking the balance between relatability and relevance is not an easy task. If brands go too far out then audiences might end up lost without a compass, leaving them scratching their heads instead of nodding along.”
She agrees with Wigglesworth's approach. “The trick is to seamlessly connect appealing animal quirks back to the brand essence, creating an approach that will be equally memorable and meaningful. When selecting the right animal it needs to stay true to the brand’s core. So, while the animal kingdom offers a diverse creative playground, knowing when to rein in the wild side ensures that brand messages hit home with acute precision,” she says.
It's just as well that that of the estimates animal species, 7.5 million have yet to be identified and cataloguing them all could take more than 1,000 years.
Even if they come in two by two that should keep agencies and advertisers as busy for some time yet.