Ad Report Card: PETA’s Screwy Cats

The Ad Report Card will surprise no one in observing that advertisers love animals. As comic foils, as spokescreatures, as cute and loveable props, they have been with us throughout commercial history. At the moment, as one astute “Moneybox” reader pointed out not long ago, there is a vogue in advertising for bears: This reader lists bearish spots for Wendy’s, Toyota, Smirnoff Ice, and Volkswagen, plus one you can see here on the Web site for Canadian salmon seller John West, in which a man goes mano a paw with a bear.

But today our subject is cats. Ad watchers know that the cat is an aloof creature of mystery, usually leading a secret life. And so it is in a curious spot produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, although in this case the secret life is rather more randy than you might expect. Before I go any further, you may want to see the ad, which is sort of hard to believe, either here at Adcritic (where as I write, it tops the site’s ranking of current spots) using QuickTime or here using RealPlayer.

The ad: “Be good, kitty,” a woman says to her cat as she leaves him alone for the afternoon. The cat turns to the camera and narrows his eyes devilishly. Funky music kicks in, and we cut to a fireplace, in front of which two cats are rutting. (They aren’t real cats, of course, but animatronic ones; still, the idea is for them to look fairly real.) Another pair humps on the kitchen table. A third couple couples by the fish tank. “Over 2.4 million unwanted kittens are born each year,” a flashcard announces. Another shot of cats going at it, in silhouette, in time with the beat. “Most will be put to death.” Cut to, two kittens, looking kittenish. “It’s a problem you can fix. Spay or neuter your pet.” One last shot of a cat, meowing in the act, and then the tag identifying the advertiser as PETA and plugging a Web address,

The point? I’m sort of flummoxed by this ad. On the one hand, the animal rights crowd generally comes across as a wildly humorless bunch, always tilting at some absurd windmill or other. (Another reader e-mailed me not long ago about the Humane Society’s efforts to snuff out a Web site that it said “encourages animal cruelty” but was really little more than an extremely bad and almost totally irrelevant hoax.) PETA itself was recently blocked from airing an ad during the Super Bowl in which various cows sang their protest against leather (see it here or here) in a gambit that is likely to amuse people who are already sympathetic to the group’s point of view and likely to annoy everyone else. Anyway, my guess is that there is a constituency that is normally turned off by PETA and its ilk that will find this cat orgy to be the funniest animal rights commercial ever made.

The counterpoint: But who, exactly, is that constituency? As I often do in these situations, I brought in the Moneybox in-house focus group—my girlfriend, E, who is a devout animal-lover (like everyone else at Moneybox headquarters, by which I mean me). My notes from that focus session show a couple of interesting points. First, the PETA site itself says that “some stations” refuse to the air this ad, and actually I’m sort of astonished at the thought that anyone is airing it all. So a likely best-case scenario is that articles like this one will give the spot a sort of underground life on the Internet. That dovetails with point number two: Who will find the ad funny? Mostly teen-agers? And are they likely to get their cats fixed as a result? Is anyone likely to be converted from indifference to action on the question of spaying and neutering as a result of having seen this spot?

Well, it’s hard to say. Certainly the typical television viewer is by now so numb to the typical language of public service announcements that the more traditional gambit—a cute but pitiful kitty marked  for death—is arguably passé. So it seems reasonable to try something new. But this? I don’t know. I don’t personally find the spot offensive, and I’ll even admit that it’s funny in a kind of Beavis and Butt-Head-ish way and also that it’s absolutely attention-getting. Still, while it’s one thing to jump on the irreverence bandwagon to distract attention from the fact that what you’re selling is trivial, in this case it seems strange to let sophomoric humor overshadow a perfectly reasonable message. I would love to give PETA an A for showing it has a sense of humor, but this spot ends up earning a D for not knowing how to use it.