Using Pets to Sell: Responsible Use of Animals in Adverts

Depictions of pets in adverts should reflect the five welfare needs.

Posted Dec 29, 2018

When I was growing up in England, I used to see adverts on TV that showed chimps dressed in human clothes, doing human things, like riding bicycles or digging the Channel Tunnel, before stopping for a cup of tea from PG Tips. Those chimps and the adverts they appeared in have long since retired, and these days it’s widely felt that such use of animals in advertising is wrong (you can read a 2014 update on the chimps here).

But what about when pets like cats and dogs are used in adverts? There are also concerns here.

Daniel Frank/Stocksnap
Source: Daniel Frank/Stocksnap

Earlier this year, I reported on a campaign from the British Veterinary Association (BVA) to persuade advertisers to stop using brachycephalic breeds (such as French Bulldogs and Persian cats) in advertising, because these breeds can suffer health problems as a result of their flat faces. The concern was that, although these breeds are being used because they are already popular, they could encourage even more people to get them without looking into the health issues. The campaign used the hashtag #BreedtoBreathe.

Now, the BVA has published wider guidance on the responsible use of pets in advertising. Their report says that advertisers should ensure that pets’ five welfare needs are met, giving examples of common mistakes.

These mistakes include:

  • Using animals with flat faces, because they often suffer health issues, including respiratory issues and eye problems
  • Using animals whose tails have been docked and/or ears cropped, because these are painful procedures and interfere with the animals’ ability to communicate
  • Having social animals, like rabbits, on their own, or conversely having animals that prefer to be solitary in a group
  • Showing pets eating inappropriate amounts or types of food, including being fed things that are poisonous to them, such as chocolate
  • Showing animals in completely inappropriate environments, such as fish in tiny tanks or wild animals like meerkats as pets in a home
  • Showing animals dressed up in costumes (because they restrict movement and affect the regulation of temperature) or being carried in handbags (which restricts exercise)
  • Showing aversive training methods, such as a dog in a shock or prong collar

As well, the report recommends that advertisers only get animals from companies whose trainers will use reward-based training methods and avoid those who use aversive tools, such as shock collars.

The idea is that these guidelines will encourage advertisers to depict animals responsibly, and that advertising will not inadvertently lead to consumers making poor choices (e.g., with an impulse purchase of a breed without doing research or asking about health checks).

The President of the BVA, Simon Doherty, said,

     “Images of cute, funny, and cuddly pets grab our attention and pull at our heartstrings, so it’s no surprise that advertisers use them to be the face of their brand. While the individual pets in the adverts might be well-cared-for, our concern is with the way they are often depicted and its impact on the wider pet population.”

There are many factors that influence people’s choice of breed, but it is not known if advertising is one of them. However, we do know that movies can make specific breeds very popular (Ghirlanda et al. 2013). It seems likely that the use of animals in advertising is one of many things that help form our collective beliefs about animals and how they should be treated.

The fact that these guidelines for advertisers go beyond breed to look at the responsible depiction of pets in general is to be welcomed. If you know a little about animal welfare or reading body language, sometimes it feels like everywhere you look there are photos or videos of animals being treated in ways that make you feel queasy. They often come with accompanying comments that they are "cute" or "funny." When this comes from big brands who should know better, it’s a real shame.

Advertising is often aspirational, and the idea that it should also be aspirational in terms of animal welfare is a good one.

It remains to be seen how many advertisers will follow these guidelines, but it does mean that those in the UK have information to share with brands they think aren’t depicting animals appropriately.

And, conversely, if advertisers are being responsible in their use of pets, we can give them a pat on the back.

The guidelines cover all species of animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, and horses.

Do you think other countries should follow suit with similar guidelines?

References

Ghirlanda, S., Acerbi, A., Herzog, H., & Serpell, J. A. (2013). Fashion vs. function in cultural evolution: The case of dog breed popularity. PloS One, 8(9), e74770. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0074770

More Posts