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The Real Value of Dogs in Commercials


Or, why a profitable campaign doesn't necessarily lead to profit for the dog owner.

If it seems like dogs have taken over the ad industry, it's not your imagination. One in three commercials includes a dog, according to Michelle Zahn, owner of Le PAWS, a professional pet talent agency. Dogs also dominated many of this year's popular Super Bowl ads, and apparently, the strategy paid off. According to Nielsen, the top "most remembered" ads in the 2012 Super Bowl belonged to Doritos, owned by Frito-Lay/PepsiCo (PEP), M&M's, Skechers (SKX), Coca-Cola (KO), and Bud Light (BUD); three of those spots included dogs. One key reason animals strike a chord in audiences is the humor factor, which resonates during a broadcast like the Super Bowl, even in economic downtimes. But audiences weren't the only ones enjoying canine commercials; there's a significant financial benefit to advertisers who turn to the dogs.
  • Spuds MacKenzie: Iconic dog, and cheap labor for Budweiser.

Professional actors often become members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), or both. Though membership does require that the talent pay dues, it offers many forms of "protection" for an actor, including guaranteed minimum rates for work, and mandated on-set conditions, like breaks, meals, and overtime. Actor unions also provide access to other financial necessities like health insurance and retirement plans.

In turn, advertisers and advertising agencies wishing to hire union talent become what is called a signatory. Being a signatory offers the advertiser access to top talent, but also requires that union mandates are met, including pay rates on based factors like the amount of time an actor works, what he or she does on the shoot, what appears in the final cut, where the media is placed and aired, and for how long. While the "day rate" for talent may not provide a substantial means of steady income, the opportunity for working actors often lies in what happens after the director yells "cut." That's because part of a union actors' compensation is calculated based on where the final advertising airs, and for the duration that it's used. When campaigns are successful, advertisers run them frequently, and often create versions of the successful piece. As long as the spot is airing, the actor is compensated in the form of residuals.

Not so for dogs.
  • Here "We Go." Bud Light went with a leaner mascot for this year's Super Bowl.

Though the American Humane Association Film & TV Unit does work to ensure humane working conditions for animals, dogs are typically paid a flat day rate, regardless of the "legs" they give a campaign. For advertisers shelling out the estimated $3.5 million for an ad to appear in the Super Bowl commercial line up, featuring a dog in the lead role can shave quite a bit off the talent budget.

If you lived in the 1980s, you remember Budweiser's dog mascot, Spuds MacKenzie, who was introduced to the public during Super Bowl XXI. Hope Fulgham, chief marketing officer at E+M Advertising, was involved in the creation of the "Spuds" campaign while at the agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowels. She explains that the inspiration for the would-be iconic brand campaign was borne out of a need to not compete with the already successful "Bud Girls" and to stay within a budget that was also funding voiceover talent provided by Robin Leach, of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous fame. The "Spuds" imagery resonated with audiences and the "original party idea" campaign enjoyed a healthy run. But, because dogs don't command minimum union wages or residuals like human actors, "Spuds" compensation was actually based on a pre-determined fixed rate. Though Spuds was compensated for additional promotional appearances that weren't outlined in the original scope of work, using a dog as an iconic brand image for Budweiser was ultimately a major score for the bottom line.

But a profitable campaign doesn't necessarily lead to profit for the dog owner. Though using animals in advertising can be a major win for the brands they help to sell, Zahn says the majority of dog roles pay about $350 a day -- before the agent takes his or her cut. If the dog is expected to perform specific tasks on film, it spends time, usually two or three days, with a trainer who will teach per the script before filming. Though the dog is compensated for its "practice," the rate is half of the agreed upon day rate. Because there are few roles available relative to the amount of dog (owners) looking for their big break, negotiation on fees isn't likely unless your pet is a veteran actor, according to Zahn.

When it comes to animal actors, cute doesn't cut it, and signing your dog with an agency never guarantees work. Fulgham says that animals chosen for major campaigns typically have a long resume, in addition to extensive, ongoing training (paid for by the owner). "At the end of the day, the goal is to get the shoot as quickly as possible."

  • Volkswagen's "Bark Side" Super Bowl ad featured a choir of howling dogs.
Keep in mind that a set is not a natural experience for an animal; lights, commotion, and the instant silence when filming begins can cause panting, shedding, and distress (all no-no's). If you have aspirations of being involved behind the scenes, you won't find it as a dog owner. Zahn explains that because of the pressure, a third-party trainer or union trainer actually works with the animal during filming.

But, if you're convinced your dog has star power, and you're ready to shell out money and time for training and representation, Zahn is convinced there's value in the process. "Learning how to truly train and communicate with your dog is a powerful bonding experience that most pet owners appreciate -- even if it never leads to a job."

Twitter: @WellnessOnLess
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