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Animal magic

Updated Friday, 9th June 2006

Animals frequently appear in adverts but Terry O' Sullivan suggests a change may be taking place in the public response to animal magic.

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Animals are like people, only nicer. Or so it would seem in the annals of British advertising, where animals have featured in some of the industry's longest-running and most famous campaigns. What did you sleep on last night? Did the unlikely combination of a hippo and a duck haunt your dreams at any point?

Think about what you had for breakfast this morning. Did cereal-toting tigers, honey monsters or tea-swilling chimps have anything to do with it? How about what you have in your bathroom. Does an adorable Labrador puppy spring to mind?

Brand spokescreatures such as these make an instant emotional connection with us. A bit like pets, they offer warm, uncomplicated relationships in a world too full of confusion and hostility. And it's not just the British who have a predilection for things four-legged. Animal ads seem to tap into an international empathy with the cuddly kingdom.

In Canada, for example, mobile phone advertising is dominated by dogs, lizards and beavers. Frank and Gordon (the animatronic beavers in that list) front Bell Canada's cell phone campaign, representing brand attributes of cuteness and mobility. Wander into one of their high-street shops and you can even have your photo taken with a stuffed version of the toothy twosome, perhaps on your new camera phone.

More cynically, one can see the economic advantages of animals for advertisers themselves. They don't answer back, they are non-unionised, and they arguably have a more universal appeal to today's global marketplace than humans from a particular ethnic or demographic mould. They are a great way of surrounding a brand with associations other than how much it's costing us.

Best of all are animated animals, whether as cartoons or increasingly life-like animatronic creations. These get round the proverbial difficulties of working with "animals and children", as well as neatly removing any question of exploitation.

With changing attitudes to animal rights and a keener sense of the importance of animal welfare, avoiding the charge of exploitation is becoming increasingly important for advertisers. A number of companies in the UK have stopped using great apes in advertising (including Halfords, Grolsch, and perhaps most famously PG Tips).

In the Republic of Ireland only last year the mobile phone operator Meteor prompted protests from animal protection groups over the use of an orang-utan called Harry in its advertising. Earlier in 2005 the AA ruled out future use of captive wild animals in its advertising following similar protests about its use of an elephant.

Such protests are connected with more than just a simple concern for animal welfare, however. They may be early warnings of a shift in popular opinion which might see the use of animals in advertising as undignified, in spite of its popularity until now.

There is a growing sense in which humans are beginning to consider themselves as no different from any other animals. Many contemporary philosophers define personhood on the grounds of an organism's consciousness of being alive rather than its being human.

Influential ethicists such as Peter Singer have revived the idea of utilitarianism on a global scale, arguing that we need to weigh our rights as humans with the claims of other living beings when we make moral decisions. It takes a while for this kind of thinking to filter through to the level of marketing, and it's open to all sorts of objections. However, a similar kind of philosophical revolution has had a profound impact on attitudes to green issues, which we now take for granted in marketing and elsewhere.

One of the first ways in which the use of animals in advertising may change in response to this trend is that advertisers will stop patronising animals by giving them cute human characteristics, and instead recognise the animal-like features of humans.

This may explain the current advertising campaign by (yet another) mobile phone operator in the UK, where customers are split into different kinds of animals depending on what they're looking for (and put on different tariffs accordingly). Dolphins are sociable creatures who use their phones to facilitate and organise their interactions with others, canaries like nothing better than chirping away on their mobiles, racoons are highly instrumental, and panthers are sleek, sophisticated hunters prowling the microwaves for information and entertainment.

The animals are represented in the ads not by real creatures, nor by even vaguely life-like animatronics, but by symbolic representations such as balloons in the mobile phone operator's house colour. Not only does that banish any suggestion of exploiting real animals, it also cloaks the human assumption of animal identities with a sense of innocent celebration and fun. Like people, only nicer.

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