Singing cats, dancing ponies and screaming goats – why are animals so popular in viral advertising?

The team behind the Viral Video Chart examine the latest trending videos and look at what it takes to become a web smash.

Whoever came up with the old media adage ‘never work with children or animals’ had obviously never experienced the wondrous world of the interweb. In fact, in terms of viral marketing, it would be difficult to find a more potent mix of conversation triggers. Animal videos in particular have evolved into an online genre all of their own and companies are increasingly using animal ambassadors to promote their brands.

Last month alone we saw a number of hugely successful campaigns from the likes of Freeview, which celebrated the unlikely friendship between a cat and a budgie; McVitie's, delivering crumbly cuddles inside packets of biscuits full of super sweet fluffy surprises; and of course, Three Mobile’s campaign to get the nation sharing silly stuff with its awesome rock and roll kitty.

Just take a look at Compare the Market’s meerkats: they’ve become one of the most successful advertising creations of all time. Since their arrival back in 2009, they’ve been credited with more than doubling the value of the business, leading to several spin off microsites, a range of cult status cuddly toys (with their own social media profiles) and the birth of a catchphrase that’s become so popular it’s now officially in the Collins English Dictionary – Simples! Who’d have thought an animated meerkat in a smoking jacket with a random Russian accent could become so popular?

The emotional power of animals

It’s clear that Aleksandr Orlov and his fluffy family have been a catalyst for a notable increase in animal fronted marketing campaigns. But the question that brands and agencies are trying to understand is, why are animals so ‘big’ in advertising? We asked Luke Tipping, senior interactive creative at Wieden + Kennedy, the agency behind #SingItKitty, for his thoughts:“Animals are popular because they’re aspirational. We wish we could be more like them. They live for the moment, are true in their affections and they don’t worry about having a bad hair day. Difficult standards for us people to live up to.”It could be that part of the reason we’re so fascinated by animals is that they’re uncensored and not embarrassed to get into silly situations. We can’t resist the urge to humanise them and their expressions of happiness, excitement, anger, playfulness, and surprise are all relatable emotions we connect with, regardless of race or cultural background.Our research here at VAN has shown that people are far more likely to share a piece of content if it has a strong emotional impact, particularly at the positive end of the spectrum, and the ‘feel good factor’ is one of the most effective viral triggers. Pet owners love animals, they see them as part of the family and they’re more likely to make an emotional connection with animal fronted campaigns because they remind them of their own pets, triggering feelings of warmth that consumers will project onto the brand.Take a look at the success of Budweiser’s recent Super Bowl commercial, ‘Puppy Love’, which has nearly 50 million views and counting. The ad tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a Clydesdale horse and a super cute little Labrador pup, tugging at the heartstrings and celebrating the joys that animals bring to their owners.

Budweiser added further fuel to the conversation by asking viewers to use the #BestBuds hashtag to post pictures of themselves with their pets across social media channels. Of course, we all know that animal owners love uploading photos of their pets online (almost as much as parents love flooding your news feeds with baby photos). It was a clever way for the brand to tap into the viral zeitgeist and get viewers generating and sharing their own content around the campaign.

Leveraging the meme culture

A key point worth noting about all of the ads we’ve mentioned so far is that they use an integrated online approach to prolong the lifespan of the campaign and reach a wider audience. They direct viewers through to microsites where they can read more about the back story, interact with the characters, join social media conversations and play games; all of which promote sharing behaviours. Three Mobile’s #SingItKitty app is a perfect example, allowing viewers to upload their own photos and superimpose themselves and their friends into the ad. The results are hilarious (well worth a look if you haven’t already seen it) and the personalised videos help turn the ad into an online meme, tapping into the essence of viral internet culture.Part of the reason for the sustained success of popular memes like Grumpy Cat or Advice Dog is their emphasis on community building. They’ve evolved into widely recognised mechanisms of self-expression that anyone can use to communicate thoughts and trends. Animals in general are the perfect vehicles because they are so universally relatable, which makes them the perfect ambassadors for brands looking to leverage this sharing behaviour. However, there’s one species in particular that seems to whip the interweb into a frenzy like no other. I’m pretty sure you know which fluffy, four-legged creature I’m referring to… CATS!

The viral impact of cats

No conversation about the power of animals in advertising would be complete without a mention for our favourite feline friends. It’s a well-known joke that cats rule the internet. Cat memes are the most popular type of captioned image online and there are entire websites and communities dedicated to creating and sharing kitty related videos and content, from Cheezeburger to Catster, Catmoji and Cats That Look Like Hitler (to name just a few). Grumpy Cat’s website attracts a whopping 1.5 million visitors every month and YouTube is full of videos of cat ‘celebrities’ like Lil Bub, Maru and Colonel Meow, some of whom are now so famous they even have their own PR agents.Here at VAN we run an entire ad industry events program called #KittenCamp, dedicated to celebrating the power of cats and internet memes. I have to admit, I could easily spend hours every week watching cute kitties falling off tables, but I’ll let you into a secret – the founder of #KittenCamp, Chris Quigley, aka Meme-Master-Meow, (that’s him in the picture below wearing a giant cat onesie), doesn’t like cats! I know, crazy right? But the truth is, cats have become so iconic that even people who don’t like them in real life can still love them online. The specific type of humour offered by cats lends itself perfectly to meme culture and if leveraged correctly, it can give advertising campaigns a huge viral uplift. Remember Cravendale’s phenomenally successful Cats with thumbs? Around the same time as the ad was launched there was a video of a polydactyl cat who gave a cheeky thumbs up to the camera that was going viral on YouTube.

The clip was featured in a host of media news stories as viewers marvelled over the cat’s amazing ability, triggering the inevitable real or fake viral debate. Of course, it was a fake, cleverly released by Wieden + Kennedy, the agency behind the campaign to promote the ad, but the video created a huge amount of additional exposure for the brand providing the perfect conversation triggers to get people sharing.I’ll leave you with the words of Toronto-based agency, John St., which summed up the power of cats as marketing tools nicely with an awesome faux-commercial promoting the world’s first cat video production agency.

Mel Peck is marketing and communities manager at the Viral Ad Network

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