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Adman’s Best Friend? Why American Audiences Love Dog Commercials

I stared at the data, looking for a pattern. I didn’t have to look too hard.

“Dogs.”

“Dogs?”

“Dogs. Dog food, dogs in cars, service dogs, rescue dogs, dogs dressing up as people and stealing potato chips. Americans really, really, love dogs.”

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The data was from an ad test. A big ad test: 19,000 ads – everything that aired in 7 major TV categories, from financial services to cars – tested for how consumers responded to them emotionally. I’d just been sent the list of ads which scored highest from that massive database. And the trend was as plain as the wet, snuffly, eager nose on your pet’s face.

By no means every high-scoring ad featured man’s best friend, but enough do to make dogs a common feature of some of America’s most emotionally resonant commercials.

It’s no surprise that dogs are an advertising winner. Since the year 2000, the US population has risen 15%. The dog population has more than doubled that pace, jumping by almost a third. Dogs are more popular than ever, and American ads reflect that. Some of the most memorable and well-loved ads of recent years have starred them, from Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” to Dorito’s hilarious Super Bowl commercial starring three dogs in a trenchcoat trying to get served in a grocery store.

At this point – if you’re a cynical advertiser – your eyes might be rolling. Sure, dogs are a feature of lots of popular ads, but isn’t that just cheap populism? Easy sentiment? Lowest common denominator advertising with no relevance to the brand? As one marketing guru sniffily put it on Twitter recently, without proper consideration of the brand you might as well fill your ads with cute animals, babies and weeping Moms.

I’d reply to that in two ways.

First of all, of course the brand matters. The dogs in their trenchcoat aren't just doing it for fun – they want those Doritos, and it’s part of a long-running campaign in which nefarious plans to get or steal the chips are a common trope. And in Subaru’s long-running campaign with its Barkleys family of driving dogs, the point is to show common uses of the brand’s cars – like dropping kids off at school – in a new light by making it about dogs, not people. The fact that it’s a cute new light is just a big emotional bonus.

Putting dogs in a campaign isn’t a cure-all. In the UK version of the test, we found an ad for a cheap loans company which focused on an adorable pup. It tanked – the association between the nice dog and the slightly less adorable brand didn’t help matters at all.

But the second point I’d make is – there’s nothing wrong with cute animals. Or babies. Or Moms, troops, cartoon monsters or any of the myriad of devices advertisers have used to tweak our feelings given the tiny slivers of time we grant them. Marketers have become so enamoured of targeting and personalisation, or so convinced Gen Z are a new species, that they’ve become paralysed by their own sophistication. They’ve forgotten how to make ads people – a huge variety of people – love.

Politics has taken some of the shine off the word, but in advertising, there’s nothing wrong with populism. Almost 70% of American households have pets. Of course animals in ads are going to be popular! If you can find a good angle, and a way they work with your brand, go ahead and use dogs or cats, or terrapins and aardvarks if you want.

The reason for doing it is simple: emotion works. Evidence from the IPA’s comprehensive studies of ad effectiveness (see The Long And The Short Of It, by Les Binet and Peter Field) shows that emotional campaigns have a far higher chance of generating long-term positive business effects than campaigns which simply concentrate on a rational message. If you want to build a brand long-term, then big campaigns, big smiles – and, yes, great big dogs – are a good place to start.

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