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Dogs in Commercials: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Coldwell Banker's commercial during the Oscars got me thinking about dogs in ads -- starting with that abomination known as Spuds MacKenzie.

Chris Hall  |  Feb 24th 2015


The big television event of last weekend was the Academy Awards. The Oscars are rarely of much professional interest to us, because few, if any, dogs attend the event most years. Even when one or two do make it up the red carpet, the press is usually more interested in which film snagged Best Picture or what designers actresses were wearing. The Oscars are that rarest of beasts in show biz: An event where even cute puppies can’t upstage the main show.

But while there wasn’t much dog action on the stage during Sunday’s telecast, something of note did happen during a commercial break: Coldwell Banker Real Estate premiered a commercial it calls “Where Home Begins.” Starring several actual rescue dogs, the commercial is more than just another attempt to promote a brand using cute puppies. It’s actually part of Coldwell Banker’s collaboration with Adopt-a-Pet.com to rehome 20,000 rescue dogs by the end of the year through the Homes for Dogs Project.

If Coldwell Banker can help rehome 20,000 dogs in a single year, then mazel tov to the company. That would be worth any number of gold statuettes.

No matter how much I like the idea of Coldwell Banker’s project, though, it makes me think about the broader issue of dogs in advertising. I love dogs, but 90 percent of the time (generously speaking), advertisements that prominently feature them make me cringe.

For one thing, when a company decides to sell its non-dog related product using dogs, it’s a complete failure of imagination. Most everyone loves dogs, and so even the most incompetent ad exec knows that you can tug at a viewer’s heartstrings by tossing a cute pup into the picture. Other than sex, dogs are perhaps the cheapest, easiest way of manipulating an audience’s feelings.

The second thing that bugs me about dogs in commercials is that so very, very few of the creators seem to have faith in their source material. They know that they want dogs because dogs are cute and everyone loves them; they just can’t take the risk of having them act like actual dogs would.

Possibly the most well-known dog to serve as a corporate mascot during my lifetime was Spuds MacKenzie, the spokescanine for Bud Lite during the late 1980s. In prepping for this article, I looked up some of the old ads on YouTube, and doing so made me immediately remember why I hated the whole damn decade so much. Spuds embodied everything that I’ve just said about bad dog commercials, as well as a few extra traits.

Despite actually being a female Bull Terrier with the much less marketable name of Honey Tree Evil Eye, Spuds was supposed to represent the kind of partying macho fratboy that Budweiser was trying to reach. There was a disturbing undercurrent of bestiality to the ads: Wherever Spuds went, large-breasted women in bikinis followed him around looking ready for action. Despite the gender of Honey Tree Evil Eye, Spuds Mackenzie was definitely a fantastical heterosexual male.

Budweiser got around the weirder aspects of Spuds Mackenzie by simply refusing to acknowledge that he was a dog at all; the official line was that Spuds was actually a man. (You can try to parse the so-called logic in that if you like; I’m not going to bother.)

Fortunately, not all commercials using dogs have followed the path to Hell that Spuds Mackenzie blazed back in 1987. One of the best examples of getting it right is the below ad, which Cesar dog food released in 2013, called “Love Them Back.”

What I like best about this ad is that unlike Spuds Mackenzie or the Taco Bell Chihuahua, who plagued television screens in the 1990s, the dog really does act like a dog. The entire ad portrays exactly the things that we love best about dogs: Their ability to be loyal, loving companions. They can be counted on to play that role even when other human beings have turned away from us. The ad does create a strong emotional response, but it’s a genuine one, not the result of manipulation.

Web hosting company GoDaddy famously shot themselves in the foot earlier this year with an advertisement that didn’t even make it to its intended slot on the Super Bowl broadcast. In a stupendous example of insensitivity and cluelessness, GoDaddy’s ad depicted a lost dog being returned home, only to be sold online by his owner — actually a breeder. An online petition that condemned GoDaddy for promoting puppy mills got 42,000 signatures before CEO Blake Irving decided that discretion was the better part of valor and killed the ad.

Of the bad doggie ads, the GoDaddy incident is the one that could have been most easily avoided. With only a little research and insight into the issues, the company might have actually come up with something that made them look good.

But given GoDaddy’s history with advertisements that gross people out — such as their “beaver” ad for the 2008 Super Bowl, which got rejected by the network — it’s easy to wonder if they have a deliberate strategy that favors lots of bad publicity over a moderate amount of good publicity.

When looking through dog-based advertising, it does sometimes feels like all roads lead to Budweiser. Not only did they poison the last few years of my high school career with Spuds Mackenzie, but GoDaddy’s infamous 2015 Super Bowl ad was a parody of Budweiser’s “Lost Dog” commercial, which was itself a follow-up to last year’s hugely successful “Puppy Love” spot. Neither really touches me in any significant way. Their portrayals of the love between a Labrador puppy and a bunch of Clydesdale horses just tries so hard to be cute and adorable that it just feels cloying and saccharine.

The anti-drunk driving ad that Budweiser put out late last year feels more honest and real than their much-acclaimed Super Bowl spots. The commercial shows a college-age guy who’s just gotten a new puppy. We see a montage of the two running and playing, and having fun with the guy’s friend; the puppy grows up into an adult dog, and then —

The guy doesn’t come home. The dog paces all night, getting more agitated and worried, until the next morning when his owner comes in the door. He embraces his furry friend, telling him that he had one too many and stayed over at a friend’s house.

Even this ad is a little heavy on the sentiment, but it still works because the scene is essentially something that any dog owner can imagine. Once again, we come back to a simple principle: The best approach is to make commercials that are actually about dogs, not thinly disguised people in dog suits.

Weirdly enough, even that ad inspired controversy — or pseudo-controversy — when it went viral. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times wrote a commentary condemning the ad as a depiction of animal cruelty. He described the main character as an “irresponsible moron” for leaving his dog home alone all night. Personally, I thought that Hiltzik was clutching his pearls for no good reason.

Unlike the rest of these ads, the real test of Coldwell Banker’s spot on the Oscars will be what happens afterward. The ad itself is nice enough, but what really matters is whether it actually can get homes for those 20,000 dogs. I for one would really like to see it succeed at that.

Let’s hear from you, readers. How do you feel about using dogs in commercials? Do you have a favorite? Or a least favorite? Tell us in the comments.

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