People feel an emotional connection with their pets and this bond is known to have a variety of potential health benefits for the owners, such as reduction in stress and lowering of blood pressure. This connection also extends beyond actual ownership, such that pet owners respond to images of dogs and cats, and feel the emotional bond and connection, even if it doesn’t involve their own pet. Marketing professionals know this, and often use animals in their advertisements in order to convey a message about a product and influence consumer behavior.
A new study, published recently in the Journal of Marketing, compares the consumer-related decisions made by dog owners and cat owners, in response to marketing adverts in which pets are shown as mascots, characters or “spokespersons.” The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the University of South Carolina, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and is authored by Lei Jia, Xiaojing Yang, and Yuwei Jiang.
Pets have assumed increasing importance in households during the COVID-19 pandemic and pet adoptions in the U.S. have risen; about one in five households has acquired a dog or cat since the start of the pandemic. Currently, 68 percent of U.S. households (84.6 million homes) own a pet. Of these, 48 percent (60 million homes) own at least a dog and 37 percent (47 million homes) own at least a cat.
Pets frequently appear in mass media and marketing communications, even in cases where the product advertised is not related to pets or pet ownership. For example, Target chose a dog as its brand mascot, Microsoft featured dogs in its 2020 holiday commercial to inspire people to find joy, and Wells Fargo used a cat in its commercial to advertise its suspicious card activity alert services.
The findings of the study show that exposure to dogs and cats, in the form of recalling experience interacting with these animals, or viewing ads featuring a dog or a cat as the spokesperson, had different effects on consumers’ subsequent judgments and decisions. In each case, adverts reminded consumers of the stereotypical temperaments and behaviors of the pet species, and these attributes activated different mindsets in the pet owners. Dogs stereotypically symbolize loyalty, human interaction and family, whereas cats are seen as inquisitive, aloof and smart.
In the study, exposure to dogs made consumers more promotion-focused, meaning that they were more eager in pursuing a goal and more risk-seeking when making decisions. By contrast, exposure to cats made consumers prevention-focused, which meant they were more cautious in pursuing goals and more risk-averse when making decisions. Jia explains that “These effects occur because pet exposure experiences remind consumers of the stereotypical temperaments and behaviors of the pet species.”
The results were supported across multiple product and service contexts. For example, exposure to dogs led research participants to choose the riskier stock investment option, while exposure to cats led participants to choose the mutual fund investment option, which was less risky. Exposure to dogs was also associated with willingness to risk monetary compensation for a chance to win an even bigger payment. In addition, exposure to dogs led participants to prefer ad messages that are framed with a promotion focus, or messages that appeal to eagerness. Exposure to cats had the opposite effect, leading participants to prefer ad messages with a prevention focus or messages appealing to vigilance.
These effects of pet exposure on consumers were only seen to the extent that the marketing material reminded them of the stereotypical traits and behaviors of the pet species. The results offer some important insights into how marketers could best incorporate pets into advertisements or use them to get the message across. For products or services mainly perceived as promotion-focused (e.g., stock investments, sports cars), featuring dogs in the ad is likely to increase the ad’s persuasiveness. On the other hand, for products or services that are prevention-focused (e.g., mutual fund investment, insurance), featuring cats may increase the ad’s appeal.
“Marketers should ensure that stereotypical pet temperaments are made salient in the message. For example, the eagerness aspect of the dog or the cautiousness aspect of the cat should be highlighted. Otherwise, the intended effects of featuring pets in the ad may not be achieved,” said Jiang.
Yang describes the novel implications of these findings to marketers. “First, marketers should consider crafting their advertising messages differently or recommending different products and services when they target consumers depending on their pet exposure situations. For example, to enhance the effectiveness of advertising appeals or communication messages, marketers should emphasize promotion-focused goals such as gains and non-gains if they are targeting dog owners or after consumers are exposed to dogs or dog-featuring stimuli, such as in an advertisement.”
“Conversely, they should focus on prevention-focused goals such as losses and non-losses if they are pursuing cat owners or after consumers are exposed to cats or cat-featuring stimuli. Importantly, our findings show that this advice holds even when the advertised product or service has nothing to do with pets or pet products,” said Yang.
Another aspect of the research found that people in U.S. states with a higher percentage of dog ownership were more likely to get COVID-19 during the pandemic. This implied higher transmission rates between dog owners and, according to the authors, could help develop policies related to the prevention of COVID-19 and potentially other infectious diseases. For example, policymakers in states with more dog owners could design customized educational programs and materials related to the diseases. Alternatively, when designing ads to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, cats could be incorporated as a spokesperson and/or the cat temperament could be referenced in the message to enhance the effectiveness of the ad.