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How do we bridge the gap between human and animal representation in advertising?

With the launch of our good practice guidance for the responsible use of pet animals in advertising, Charlotte's thoughts have turned to whether considerations of animal health and welfare in advertising are keeping pace with responsible representations of their human counterparts.

Historically, there are many examples of adverts featuring human behaviours that would be considered unhealthy or dangerous by modern standards. Some famous examples of ‘shocking’, smoking related adverts can be easily be found with a quick online search.

Fortunately, our knowledge of human health and the risks associated with lifestyle choices such as smoking and drinking alcohol has moved on and in turn, campaign pressure and legislation have resulted in a re-evaluation of how these habits are portrayed in the media. Smoking for example, is often absent as an activity in modern, family films and virtually banned from advertising campaigns here in the UK.

The removal of unhealthy human habits such as smoking from mainstream media is a welcome factor in the evolution of healthier social norms. But can the same be said for depictions of animal health and welfare in advertising?

Healthy habits or bad habits?

The Animal Welfare Acts 2006 set out that animals have five welfare needs:

  1. The need for a suitable environment
  2. The need for a suitable diet
  3. The need to exhibit normal behavioural patterns
  4. The need to be housed with or apart from other animals
  5. The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

When we think about it in these terms, it seems that animal health and welfare savvy advertising has not yet caught up with the progress of health-conscious depictions of humans in advertising. As BVA has highlighted in its #BreedtoBreathe campaign, in many popular ads on television, print and online, the five welfare needs of animals do not often seen to be met. One example is this 2015 Coach ad fashion campaign where a French bull dog (owned by Lady Gaga) is dressed up with pearls and a handbag.

Although this may seem like harmless fun on the surface, there is a worry that campaigns such as these will encourage ‘copycat’ behaviour amongst the wider public - normalising health issues linked to breeds with exaggerated features such as brachycephaly and increasing the acceptability of anthropomorphising animals in such a way that could impede their natural behaviours.

The five welfare needs – a framework

If we’re to keep pace with the progress we’ve seen in the depiction of healthy habits amongst humans, we need to think more holistically about how we represent our animals in imagery.

Of course, it’s not possible for every advert to show all welfare needs being met in every situation. However, BVA believes that these welfare needs can be used as a decision-making framework that all advertisers can utilise to ensure that they are representing animals safely, respectfully and responsibly in their imagery.

As well as highlighting common mistakes to avoid, BVA’s good practice guidance encourages advertisers to consider the following questions:

  • Is the animal shown in a suitable environment (place to live) for its species and/or breed?
  • Is the animal shown eating food or near food that is non-poisonous, proportionate to its breed size and conducive to a nutritionally balanced diet?
  • Does the animal shown have enough space and/or appropriate enrichment materials to exhibit normal behaviour?
  • Is the animal shown housed with, or apart from, other animals appropriate for its species?
  • Does the animal show any physical characteristics that negatively impact on its health and/or cause suffering?  This might include bred-in characteristics (extreme conformation) and surgically altered characteristics (such as cropped ears or docked tails).
  • Is the animal shown safe? That is, is the animal at risk from injury, pain and stress in the scenario presented?

Harnessing the power of advertising

Knowledge is power and the power of mass media to change behaviours is well documented. Research published by the US Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health concludes that: ‘[…]mass media campaigns can produce positive changes or prevent negative changes in health-related behaviours across large populations.’

The power and reach of advertising can and should be harnessed to promote positive animal health and welfare. Here at BVA, we are hoping that with the backing of businesses planning to use animals in adverts and promotional imagery, media outlets, our new guidelines can support advertisers in their decision-making and ultimately bridge the gap between the representation of healthy humans and healthy, happy animals in advertising.


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