Why animals are taking over TV commercial space

The Aflac duck (from left), a Chick-fil-A cow and Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. FILE PHOTOS / SPECIAL
The Aflac duck (from left), a Chick-fil-A cow and Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. FILE PHOTOS / SPECIAL

Chick-fil-A has its cows. Geico has its gecko with a British accent. Charmin has its bears. Liberty Mutual its emu and Allstate its pitchman who plays a 70-pound Saint Bernard puppy creating “mayhem.”

Marketing experts say there’s a good reason for that.

Animals make us feel warm and fuzzy, so much so that when we see these ads, and we see them a lot, we’ll buy that Charmin, that Aflac insurance, those Frosted Flakes Tony the Tiger has been known to pitch.

I happen to love Chick-fil-A. I think the fast-food restaurant’s ads are genius, but that’s not why I spend my money there. I buy Charmin but not because of the bears. And no matter how sexy that gecko’s accent might be, I probably will never trade my insurance carrier for Geico, Liberty Mutual or Allstate and not for the reasons you may think.

Honestly, I’m on animal overload. If I never see one of these TV commercials again, it will be fine with me.

I didn’t know exactly what was bothering me about these ads until I started quizzing Michael Tucker about them.

Tucker is an executive-in-residence in the Marketing Communication Department at Emerson College in Boston.

“Overload is indeed painful,” he told me. “Because big budget advertisers like Geico — $1.5 billion ad spend in 2018 — flood online, on air and in print with their message and brand icon. It’s like your toddler telling you the same joke hundreds of times. You don’t necessarily hate the messenger, but you’re exhausted by the incessant repetition.”

Incessant is an understatement. It isn’t just Geico, it’s the whole lot of them.

And it isn’t just me feeling like I’m being force-fed, well, cuteness, according to Lewis Goldstein, president of Blue Wind Marketing in Los Angeles.

“There is a proliferation of animals that are used by a number of brands in TV ads,” Goldstein said.

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Why?

When done well, they are effective.

“Most of us spent our earliest years cuddling stuffed animals in cribs — before we even had language skills,” Tucker said. “They were our very first best friends. We loved them and they loved us back. We watched them in cartoons and movies. Visited them at zoos. Aquariums. Petting zoos. We had live pets at home.

“Animals are nonjudgmental, non-racist, and give us unconditional love. Given the current ‘us vs. them’ fissure in our communities, major advertisers need a main character or brand representative that carries no baggage and will appeal across all targets and demographics. Cue the emu.”

Heck, cue the violins.

There’s more from Michael Fallon, a business instructor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

Michael Tucker is an executive-in-residence in the Marketing Communication Department at Emerson College in Boston. CONTRIBUTED
Michael Tucker is an executive-in-residence in the Marketing Communication Department at Emerson College in Boston. CONTRIBUTED

“Animals are relatable to a broad market of consumers,” he said. “Animals are cute, memorable, aren’t of a particular race, political party or socioeconomic group. By using an animal as a mascot, you lessen the risk of alienating a particular segment of a population, especially if you have a broad target market … that span age groups, ethnicities, and in many cases, socioeconomic groups.”

There are, of course, both pros and cons to this type of advertising.

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William “Lin” Humphrey, an assistant professor of marketing at Florida International University, said today it’s more important than ever to capture attention back from our mobile phone, plus digitally animated animals are never going to be in a scandal or show up on TMZ, so there’s some safety in the choice to use them.

On the other hand, Humphrey said these ads have to be done well.

“We saw backlash against (digitally animated animals) shown in early versions of the motion pictures ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Cats,’” he said. “The former went back and revised the effects, and the box office reflects that the choice was good. ‘Cats’ did not, and it bombed. So, how the animation is done matters, especially with the sharing that can happen with commercials. The other issue is that it may become overload with so many animals.”

Overload. There’s that word again.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Humphrey reminded me that the use of animals in commercials isn’t new, dating as far back as Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, the Clydesdale horses in Super Bowl ads for Budweiser, and Duke with Bush’s Baked Beans.

The reason they may be employed more now is that animals stimulate positive emotions and capture attention in a cluttered media and digital device environment, he said.

“We’re dealing with an audience that has a lot of other devices and marketing messages competing for its attention,” Humphrey said. “You’re always safer with a character versus a person (no scandals). I’d say it’s less that it’s an animal trend and more trying to cut through the clutter and get into the consumer’s decision set.”

Will there be more of the same?

According to Fallon and Humphrey, there will.

Said Humphrey: “We will continue to see animals in advertising as long as we have heartstrings to tug on.”

OK, but will we be forced to watch them every few minutes?

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.