Legal, decent, honest and truthful are all well and good, but too much truthfulness in advertising carries its own risks, as the makers of Whiskas cat food may soon discover.
In an attempt to stand out from an increasingly crowded and competitive market, Masterfoods, the division of Mars that owns Whiskas, asked its agency TBWA Worldwide to take a radical look at the way the brand was promoted.
The outcome, according to John McNeel, worldwide account director at the New York office of TBWA, is “a new strategic global platform for the brand”. Out goes the old sentimental stuff about cats being cute; in comes a touch of gritty realism.
“The cat people we want to talk to celebrate cats as cats, instead of as surrogate children or babies,” says McNeel. “They recognise that cats have a wild side to them, and we want to explore that in the advertising.”
In the first two commercials being screened in the US, special effects are used to show pet cats as if they were much bigger felines, living in the wild, stalking herds of water buffalo and zebra. “Your cat has an inner beast,” says the voiceover. “Feed it.”
I cannot help feeling that this strategic global platform is destined to be pelted with insults and rotten fruit and veg. For the world is divided into two distinct and implacably hostile factions – the cat lovers and the cat haters.
And if there is one thing that rattles the cat haters above all else, it is the havoc the little beasts wreak among wildlife. According to the Mammal Society (yes, there is such a body, proof yet again that it takes all sorts to make a world) domestic cats cut a swathe through the nation’s wildlife, killing more than 100 million animals every year.
Following the Mammal Society’s disturbing disclosure, BBC News and Current Affairs took time off from impugning Mr Blair’s integrity to persuade self-confessed cat owner John Etherington to offer the following grim testimony: “Our cuddly, domesticated Siamese tom used to bring home wood pigeons, small birds, squirrels, rats, mice, voles, shrews, slow-worms and young rabbits. We watched him chase off foxes. He demolished birds’ nests, killed butterflies and many other invertebrates. All these creatures were tortured to death.”
This provoked a debate in which both sides adopted well-rehearsed positions. The cat lovers ridiculed critics of their pets and pointed out that humans are far worse killers than any other animal in God’s creation. The cat haters – many of them, it has to be said, gardeners – riposted that few humans were in the habit of climbing over fences, emptying their bowels on flower beds and, by way of an encore, dissecting a living sparrow, all the while staring insolently back at the home-owner banging on the window.
According to animal behaviourist Sarah Heath it is a mistake to judge the hunting habits of cats by human moral standards. “Cats are solitary predatory hunters. People ask why they kill when they are clearly well fed – but a cat’s motivation to hunt is quite separate from its desire to satisfy hunger.”
That seems to be close to the position adopted by Whiskas. However, it is asking too much for humans not to take a moralistic view on the behaviour of animals. After all, we love it when our pets are “almost human”. Why, we even give them passports. Only last week it was announced that the EU is to extend passports to most domestic animals. Rabbits, mice, tropical fish, canaries, terrapins and worms are to be eligible.
Yes, worms. How a worm would look in its passport photo, heaven knows. It will take a skilled immigration officer to be sure that it is a fair likeness before agreeing in the Name of Her Majesty to let the bearer pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
Note that word “protection”. If a worm travelling on a British passport is to be offered protection, is it not morally right that he or she should receive the same assurance on, or rather in, its native soil? And if a worm, why not all the other creatures at present in danger of life and limb because of the predatory nature of murdering, torturing cats?
On reflection, Whiskas would have been better sticking to its old policy of anthropomorphising pet cats. There is a sound reason for that, as American writer PJ O’Rourke explains: “It’s easy to understand why the cat has eclipsed the dog as modern America’s favourite pet. People like pets to possess the same qualities they do. Cats are irresponsible and recognise no authority, yet are completely dependent on others for their material needs. Cats cannot be made to do anything useful. Cats are mean for the fun of it. In fact, cats possess so many of the same qualities as some people (expensive girlfriends, for instance) that it’s often hard to tell the people and the cats apart.”
But if Americans increasingly resemble their cats, what does the EU’s recognition of pet worms tell us about the nature of Europeans? Are worm fanciers gutless, blind, slippery and when chopped in half able to wriggle off in separate directions? Could we at last be closer to understanding our European partners?