Your Pet Isn't Going to Neuter Himself

By Helen Phin
Agency: Mad Dogs & Englishmen
Client: Friends of Animals
Category: 2001

The client Friends of Animals, an international, nonprofit, membership organization founded in 1957 to protect animals from cruelty, abuse and institutionalized exploitation. Unlike the more famous and aggressive organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Friends of Animals promotes its ideals through positive activism.

The assignment Our assignment was to create advertising that would grab the attention of people numbed from traditional animal rights advertising. As Sandy Lewis, Director of the New York Chapter, put it: We want ads that will make people write letters to us. We want ads that will get us into the newspapers.

The challenge Past breeding control ad campaigns played on the social impact of breeding control by showing mournful puppies and kittens behind shelter bars, with headlining threats of impending death. Pet owners saw these same images so many times that the message had lost its impact. The ads made breeding control a social issue that the pet owners could easily ignore as not my problem. And while ads communicated the importance of sterilization from the social do-gooder perspective, pet owners looked at their own pets from a very personal perspective. The link between sterilization for the common good and sterilization for the pet s good was lost. My challenge was to break through the numbness consumers felt towards past blunt tactics, and to personalize the issue in a provocative and compelling way.

Developing a strategy My research included on-the-street interviews with pet owners and their pets, in-depth interviews with area animal shelter employees/managers, and online and secondary research. I also conducted one informal focus group.

The insight The Friends of Animals assignment was my first opportunity to write a creative brief. As any young, unformed planner can discover, I found myself distracted by the hundred different directions I could follow. I used my insights from the research learning to help point myself in the right direction. One possible strategy could play on the social impact of breeding control. I learned, for example, that in one year, one unsterilized female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 puppies. I imagined a strategy around the idea of produce fewer pets but figured this would only lead back to advertising showing numerous sad puppies.

With that in mind, I started thinking about other ways in that would bring the issue closer to home. When I interviewed pet owners, I learned something surprising: pet owners didn't sterilize their pets because they wanted to prevent more pets (although that was a welcome side effect). Pet owners sterilized their pets to modify their pet's behavior. As one owner reported, I knew I didn't want my dog to make puppies, but what I really wanted was to make him less aggressive. Others also cited feline spraying and heat cycles as reasons for spaying their pets. The self-interest of the owner and the personal benefit to sterilization were the missing elements in the communications.

Because this was my first planning assignment (and because my creative director was kind enough to let me) I wrote two creative briefs. In each brief, I centered the strategy around personal reasons why a pet owner should sterilize the pet. The first brief - your pet isn't going to neuter himself - reminded pet owners that pets have needs that only the owner can alleviate. The second brief - for the civilized pet - showed pet owners that sterilization is beneficial for the pet and the owner.

The creative The briefs produced a wealth of creative options to present to the client. In the end, the client chose to produce a billboard from the first brief, as the execution had the necessary stopping power and impact for that medium. I'm also proud to say that the line from my brief became the tagline for the ad. The client also chose an execution which involves the reader in the message through a clever parody of greeting cards.

The results Attention is certainly what has resulted from the controversial billboards. Vicki Vernis, a local volunteer with FOA said she has heard good and bad comments. It will certainly cause people to talk about the issue. - Winnett Daily Post, February 10, 2001

I've seen an article in the newspaper and have seen the billboard in the Atlanta area . . . I applaud your efforts. - Louis Stewart, in a letter to Friends of Animals

Ever since the billboard started running, we've seen an enormous increase in phone calls to the toll-free number. In Atlanta, where we've saturated the market, people have been talking about the ad on morning radio shows and in the paper - all free publicity for Friends of Animals. In this way, the campaign has been a huge success. - Sandy Lewis, Director of the New York Chapter of Friends of Animals