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Paws for thought: animals in ads

18 February 2013

We’re a nation known traditionally as pet lovers, and over the years the use of animals in ads has proved a popular way to pull at the heartstrings of audiences. But every year the ASA receives a number of complaints about ads featuring an animal; prompting howls of derision from the public, and putting advertisers at risk of ending up in the doghouse.

While advertisers are perfectly free to use or depict animals in ads, they should make sure that they don’t inadvertently encourage or condone behaviour that might result in the poor treatment of our furry friends. Advertisers using animals in their ads are also expected to have a vet on set during production to make sure the animals used are safe. Following a recent spate of high profile complaints on this issue we thought we’d highlight the kinds of themes and creative treatments that have ruffled the public’s feathers and the care that advertisers have to take to avoid making a pig’s ear of things.

One of the primary concerns that the public raises with us is when an animal appears to be in distress. A good example of this was a Volkswagen ad which featured a dog singing confidently in a car and then shivering when outside the vehicle. We received 733 complaints from viewers who were concerned about the dogs’ welfare, and felt the ad condoned animal cruelty. While we acknowledged that not everybody was comfortable with the idea of a trained performing animal being used in the ad, the advertiser was able to prove that a vet had been present during filming and the dog had not been harmed. We also noted that a singing dog was fantastical and therefore unlikely to encourage viewers to abuse animals. The advertising rules state clearly that animals must not be harmed or distressed as a result of producing an ad. After careful consideration and thought we did not find that this ad was in breach of the rules.

Another common concern we receive is that ads might encourage people to copy behaviour that could be harmful to an animal. This was the case recently when a Morrison's ad featured a young boy giving Christmas pudding to a dog. It prompted 234 complaints from members of the public, vets, and others who worked with dogs who were concerned that people would in turn feed their dogs Christmas pudding; which is known to contain ingredients which are potentially harmful to dogs. We looked into the complaints thoroughly and concluded that the ad was unlikely to result in harm to animals or cause people to copy the behavior seen. That was because the ad depicted the dog being fed Christmas pudding in an unfavourable light, and we expected most dog owners would know not to feed their dogs foods which are poor for their diets. The advertiser also assured us that a vet had been present on the set, and they provided written advice from a vet which said that there would be minimal, if any, risk to a dog if it were fed a small amount of Christmas pudding on a one-off basis. But the number of complaints meant the ad was subject to extensive media coverage, comment and debate, as well as being criticised by some animal protection groups.

Similarly, a Boot's ad which included a scene where a child dried a dog’s fur with a hairdryer drew 21 complaints from viewers concerned that people at home, in particular children, would emulate it and potentially harm the animal or themselves as a result. In this case, we thought it was unlikely that the brief scene would encourage people to copy behaviour which would result in harm to an animal or an individual. Because the scene was brief and mild in nature; an adult was present, and the animal didn’t appear distressed. It’s not irresponsible merely to feature a child using a hairdryer, and it’s not uncommon for dog owners to use hairdryers on their pets.

Advertisers don’t set out to intentionally upset people – it risks alienating the very consumers they want to appeal to. Fortunately, the vast majority of ads do adhere to the strict rules. It’s not uncommon for an advertiser to withdraw an ad voluntarily once they become aware of public concern. This was the case when a Fat Face ad which pictured a man riding a horse with its head pulled back tightly, and teeth bared, received complaints from people concerned that the horse looked distressed. Though our decision was to uphold we didn’t need to take any further action because Fat Face had promptly removed the advertising as soon as they’d become aware of public upset.

Using animals in ads is a tried and tested way of appealing to consumers. But advertisers do have a responsibility to ensure they look after an animal’s welfare and that includes not depicting it in a way that may result in its harm or encourage people to mistreat other animals. Our role is to make sure that ads stick to the rules, and the kinds of complaints we have received should give all advertisers paws for thought.

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