A cheetah swallows a can of soda. A woman’s pet tiger terrorizes the date who helps himself to a brew. A dog method actor moves itself to howling by remembering a disastrous pursuit of a beer truck. A horse is born. A leathery bunch of cowboys rounds up a herd of cats. A turtle falls in love with a cell phone. A snake crawls up a man’s pants.
As usual during the Super Bowl, the biggest event of advertising’s year, there were enough animals to stock a circus. Any company that pays upwards of $73,333 a second to reach an audience of 130 million football viewers is desperate to make an impression, and according to oft-mentioned statistics, 48 percent of people recall an ad with a human celebrity in it, but 82 percent will remember a cat, and 77 percent a dog. No wonder the boom in animal spots goes well beyond the Super Bowl. Pamela Maythenyi of the Source, an advertising databank, reports that there were 241 spots featuring animals last year. In at least 15 campaigns in 1998 and ’99, the animals talked.
What’s going on? Americans now house and feed 212 million pets—a number that justifies the Super Bowl appearance of pets.com and its wisecracking Sock Puppet. Several thinkers argue that the more wild creatures disappear from the landscape, the larger they loom in the collective imagination, and the more they proliferate in the national psyche that commercials represent. Ironically, however, the creatures in TV ads have almost nothing to do with nature.
According to JoAnn Magdoff, a consultant who has studied consumer responses to advertising, animals are increasingly used to express simple, uncomplicated human appetites—lusts devoid of consequences or malice—in a way that has nothing to do with the creatures themselves. A crocodile invading a bar just wants a beer, not prey. “It’s pleasure in a nonhostile way,” she says. “I want this. I’m going to go for it. Excuse me.”
Ad folks make no bones about it: That beast panting after the product is really you. The star of the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” campaign that peaked a couple of years ago was ostensibly a Chihuahua, but the ad’s creators imagined the character as a voracious 19-year-old trapped in a dog’s body. These animal suits allow the humans who inhabit them to be pretty darn wacky. Indeed, one explanation for the burst of animal ads in the ’90s may be that they helped advertisers circumvent political correctness. The Bud Lizards, for instance—conniving, smart-aleck reptiles, masters of insult and insidious plots. They were created in the image of a couple of wise guys from Brooklyn—but just try that tired shtick back in the neighborhood. “You can get away with things with animals,” says Stephen Papson, coauthor of Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising. “You can put down other species, which you can’t do with people. Animal ads are very safe kinds of ads. No constituency can complain about what you do.” (Not exactly: Taco Bell’s Chihuahua sparked protests from Hispanics.)
As scholars are quick to point out, animals have starred in ads aimed at the masses since at least 1900, when a dog named Nipper took up residence next to a phonograph. Until fairly recently, animals on TV tended to be sweet and fuzzy, big-eyed mammals who were likely to remind viewers of children. Bud’s frogs represented a bold leap into a new category: amphibians, about which virtually anything could be implied. Animals’ images have always been malleable, but they grow ever more plastic as people get farther removed from actual connection to the wild kingdom. Critic John Berger refers to “the animals of the mind”: “Having no physical needs or limitations as pets do, they can be totally transformed into human puppets.”
In an essay collected in the 1989 book Perceptions of Animals in American Culture, Magdoff and Steve Barnett revealed that responses to animal ads broke down along gender lines. In car commercials and other ads aimed at men, animals signaled strength, speed, or power. Women, however, related to finicky cats—their fussiness about food reminded them of their husbands and children.
The shift in gender roles has blown much of that to pieces, Magdoff says. But one of Budweiser’s decidedly retro ads this year played off both ideas. The scene: a beefy, flannel-shirted man romping in the woods with a handsome, golden dog. The moment invokes classic images of masculinity: joy in the outdoors, a rough-hewn athleticism, the cherished notion of man’s best friend. Back in the house, however, the dog begins to sound very much like an old-fashioned wife. When her man gets thirsty, he gets Budweiser. “I wouldn’t give him anything less,” says the dog.
This projection onto animals gets particularly weird when it moves beyond the domestic to the realm of animals we all know are endangered. In one of Ad Bowl XXXIV’s more memorable spots, a cheetah races frantically through a vast desert landscape. The predator is fiercely pursued and finally trapped by a young mountain biker, who thrusts his hand down the cat’s throat and emerges with a Mountain Dew. “Bad cheetah!” the guy says. And when the cat turns, its very spots spell out a product endorsement: Do the Dew.
In essence, the cheetah (like the tiger in the Bud Light ad) has been transformed into a pet. Mischievous as the archetypal dog that makes off with its master’s shoes, it has swiped the Mountain Dew. There’s a kind of simple wish fulfillment here—if animals had a choice, they’d want consumer products, too. And perhaps they will forgive us for what our thirst will make us do.
Consumers, however, are not supposed to think about that. In the charmed world of the commercial, it doesn’t matter that off-road bikers may be chewing up the same pristine landscapes the ad invokes, or even that cheetahs are faced with extinction.
“It’s the opposite of deconstruction, it’s reconstruction,” says Barnett, now a senior partner at OgilvyOne. “You take actual ecology, nature, which is more and more impacted by the kinds of lives we lead, and create a wonderfully mythic world, a wonderful space where nothing bad happens.”
And where’s the harm? R.J. Hoage, chief of public affairs for the National Zoo, worries most when animals are falsely portrayed as dangerous in a way that perpetuates human animosity. (There’s a spot about rattlesnakes surrounding a broken-down car that makes him cringe.) In fact, however, the fantasy world of animals only occasionally intersects with real life. There was a Chihuahua boom as the Taco Bell campaign took off, then a rash of abandonments when it turned out they weren’t quite as cute as they were on TV.
Another overlap came just before kickoff, with a spot that showed two dolphins—married, middle-aged vacationers—asking a toll taker for directions to Discovery Cove, a theme park where humans can swim with sea creatures. Discovery Cove is owned by Anheuser-Busch, which also owns Sea World, which has been criticized for exploiting whales for entertainment.
“It’s interesting that the same company that produces mawkish and phony pronature spectacles at the theme parks then turns around and makes fun of nature by humanizing and distorting it in commercials aimed at different demographics,” says Susan Davis, author of Spectacular Nature, a critical study of Sea World. “But that’s pop culture, eh?”