Do you remember the “original party animal?” This trivia question is right in my wheelhouse. The year was 1988. I was a junior in college, and yes, I imbibed every now and then and cheap beer was the usual choice. So, I knew Spuds MacKenzie. During the Super Bowl, Bud Light introduced the world to Spuds, the “original party animal,” to boost beer sales. And, he did; Bud Light climbed from #10 in the market to # 3 in less than one year.
Soon, other companies followed suit, casting mostly fictional animated animal characters in television commercials and print ads to connect with American consumers and change brand preferences. Most worked, scoring above average in terms of changing brand preference. Stroh’s Beer actually had a short-lived precursor to the original party animal: In the mid '80s, Stroh's “Alex the Dog” starred in comical TV commercials. Stroh’s was out of business by 1999, though no rubbed Alex’s nose in that one.
Animated animal characters – “trade” characters in the business – began pitching products ranging from Coke (polar bears) to batteries (the “Energizer bunny”); they were scoring big, yet companies weren’t sure why.
Almost a decade later, researchers studied this animal magnetism. The basis of their study was that animals carry with them common or shared cultural meanings among consumers and therefore, can link their personalities or cultural meanings to the products in the minds of consumers, creating a desirable image or meaning with the product. A puppy, for example, carries with him or her, strong associations with cute, cuddly, wiggly, playful, mischievous. A shark is dangerous and mysterious.
Today, we see examples of companies using animated, or even real, animals to surround their brand with positive emotions and associations. The bull terrier for Target. The Merrily Lynch bull, Taco Bell’s talking Chihuahua, the Afflack duck and Gorilla Glue. Interestingly, BMV had a print ad featuring a jaguar. Guess they figured the association was stronger for fast, sleek, and powerful, than the actual Jaguar car, a competitor.
Being able to transfer desirable meanings to products is one reason for the proliferation of animated animal pitchmen. Many animals carry with them a shared cultural meaning. Who doesn’t love the cute mutt or cartoon monkey. Celebrity spokespeople, on the other hand, can turn people off. I know someone who was considering buying a Fiat until she learned Charlie Sheen pitched for the car.
Take two of the most recognizable figures today: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Nearly half the country didn’t want Obama and more than half didn’t vote for Romney. How about Snookie, from Jersey Shore? Loveable, down-to-Earth, free-spirited meatball or drunken, no-talent bimbo? Patriots quarterback Tom Brady…accomplished champion or pretty-boy jock who makes us wildly jealous? Was Steve Jobs a genius or an ego-maniac who treated employees like crap and force fed us gadgets we didn’t need. The cultural identity or meanings associated with people is often mixed. There’s that, plus they cost a whole lot more than made-up cartoon characters, they have agents, handlers and drama.
Kim Kardashian endorses many products, mostly those that fall into the beauty products category. She charges a bit more for her assets than the Taco Bell dog and the Geico Gecko. And, one would have to be careful casting her. If we were to play word association with consumers of beauty products, they might come back with “glamorous,” “successful,” and “exotic.” Another group might say “overexposed“…. “big badunkadunk.” I wish our shelter had 1/1,000th of the press her rear-end has received!
One of my favorite campaigns -- for Charmin toilet paper -- features animated bears talking about those unpleasant little shreds of paper left behind after finishing the job. The bears are a bit human-like and they’re cute – even the little pieces of TP look cute on the little bear’s bottom. American consumers would definitely not want to see a human in that roll, er role. Not even Kim Kardashian. There’s a joke there somewhere, but I won’t go there.