Interview by Adrienne Mand
From the doghouse to the penthouse, Pets.com’s irreverent spokessock has been through it all–and lived to tell about it. But will the Sock Puppet bite the hand that feeds him?
Just a year ago, he was a down on his luck stray, having been kicked out of a doggy manners school–a mere sweat sock in a world of Versace-covered feet. Now the Pets.com Sock Puppet is a pop culture phenom, with his likeness featured as a 36-foot “falloon” (that’s a float-slash-balloon combo) in last fall’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, as well as on seemingly countless billboards across the country.
Having already represented San Francisco-based e-tailer Pets.com in 13 television
commercials, not to mention numerous print and outdoor advertisements, the Sock Puppet has nimbly scaled the rarified heights of celebrity, enough to attend the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony.
Not since Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy broke through the once “humans-only” club of superstardom has a puppet received as much fanfare and adulation, with profiles on Access Hollywood and Nightline, as well as coverage in mainstream media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Time and People magazines.
But perhaps his biggest splash came during the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXIV, when this self-professed “regular Sock” starred in the memorable Pets.com commercial, pleading in his signature plaintive voice to pet owners everywhere, “Please, don’t go.” The spot scored the No. 1 recall ranking for the lowest media investment during the game, according to Internet market research firm Active Research.
A superstar was born.
For whatever reason, the Sock Puppet has struck a chord with both pet-owning and non-pet-owning Americans. According to Pets.com reps, the company has received nearly 10,000 e-mails and phone calls to date about the Sock Puppet since October 1999. Perhaps we are enamored with his button eye, his wry sense of humor and his uncanny ability to speak to pets and humans with equal aplomb. In fact, the Sock Puppet has become more than mere spokessock for a dot-com. He has transformed into a cross-species liaison.
If you think this now-famous poly-blend pooch is simply riding the wave of fame without regard for its consequences, you’d be wrong. In between indulging his love of parasailing, longboarding and imbibing Fresca, the Sock Puppet has made it his mission to help less fortunate pets through Pets.commitment, Pets.com’s philanthropic program aiding animals. As the Pets.com campaign by TBWA/Chiat/Day San Francisco is honored by Adweek’s IQ News as Best Offline Campaign for an Online Brand, we chatted with the brown-and-white moppet who has single-handedly made wearing a Timex fashionable again.
IQ: How you were discovered by Pets.com.
Sock Puppet: Remember how Lana Turner was discovered in an ice cream parlor? It was just like that, only totally different.
IQ: You’ve been the Pets.com spokespuppet since 1999, but your life was not always so charmed. Tell me how your experiences of escaping from a coin-operated washing machine, touring with a professional arm wrestling circuit and getting kicked out of a doggy manners school prepared you for your current gig?
Sock Puppet: I’m not gonna lie. I’ve had a tough make-believe life. But I’m stronger because of it.
IQ: As the company notes, “Pets can’t drive.” You yourself have failed the licensing exam three times and you’re trying now for a fourth. Though it would essentially put you out of a job, do you envision a world where pets are free to operate motor vehicles on the road to self-sufficiency?
Sock Puppet: I envision a day when an iguana driving an 18-wheeler will wave to a hamster driving an SUV. That will be a good day.
IQ: Any chance you’ll work your parasailing and longboarding skills into future TV spots?
Sock Puppet: I’ve been trying to get them to shoot in Hawaii so I can talk to island pets. (Laughs) They can see right through that plan.
IQ: In what ways are you a role model for other socks and sock puppets in America? Is it a burden at times?
Sock Puppet: Because of my eye defect–I have 20/3000 vision in my right eye–I’ve proven that you can overcome anything if you put your mind to it.
IQ: Can you offer any advice for those young, regular tube socks out there who dream of following in your footsteps as a spokespuppet?
Sock Puppet: Go to South America. There’s plenty of work down there for ambitious socks.
IQ: Tell me if or how were you influenced by other famous puppets, such as Lamb Chop or, say, any of the Muppets?
Sock Puppet: They taught me that if you can synch up your hand motions with your voice, you can own the world.
IQ: Well, speaking of owning the world, in addition to all of the media coverage you’ve received in recent months, you’ve also been featured on both Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. So who would you rather take long walks in the park with: Diane Sawyer, Kathie Lee Gifford or the Reege?
Sock Puppet: It totally depends on which park you’re talking about.
IQ: Fame and fortune have come suddenly into your life, yet you still rent the same modest wood drawer you’ve been living in before your success. You’re sort of the Jerry Yang of the super-rich sockpuppet set. Have you splurged on anything since you became the Pets.com representative?
Sock Puppet: I haven’t really done anything for myself. But I did buy my friend Uncle Wiggles the Parakeet a hang glider, a Jacuzzi and some glassware.
IQ: Uncle Wiggles is a good buddy of yours. Is there a special sock puppet in your life, doggy or otherwise? How do you feel about inter-species relationships?
Sock Puppet: Are you flirting with me?
IQ: Would that be a problem? (Awkward silence) Um. Okay What’s better: stuffed things or squeaky toys?
Sock Puppet: This is one of those trick questions, isn’t it?
IQ: Your role in the Pets.com outdoor ad campaign has put you in some pretty “interesting” situations. In New York alone, you’re pictured on Sixth Avenue interviewing fish in an aquarium, while on 23rd Street you’re taking a bath with a shaggy dog. What has been your most challenging assignment so far?
Sock Puppet: My biggest challenge is working with humans. They can’t act nearly as sad as a bloodhound.
IQ: Your best friends include Uncle Wiggles the Parakeet and Coco the Himalayan cat, both friendships that would have been scorned by society just a few years ago. Do you see yourself as an emissary between dogs and cats, birds and fish, and other traditionally adversarial species?
Sock Puppet: I’m not that smart, but if an emissary is a good thing, then yes, I think of myself as one.
IQ: Now that you’re a celebrity, I’m sure you must mingle with other famous pet-slash-imaginary characters. What’s it like getting to know other television canines such as Lassie, Eddie from Frasier and Santa’s Little Helper from The Simpsons? Do you ever get together after work and throw back some Frescas?
Sock Puppet: I’ll throw back Frescas with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
IQ: What was the best celebrity interview you’ve done?
Sock Puppet: It’s a toss-up between the big brother from The Wonder Years and Chachi.
IQ: The Walt Disney Company owns less than 5 percent of Pets.com. Growing up, did you ever dream you’d be in the same league as canine icons Pluto and Goofy? Are there any projects in the works, such as Pluto, Goofy and the Sock Puppet Go Parasailing?
Sock Puppet: I’ll do anything with Pluto. But someone has to explain what the heck Goofy is before I’ll work with him.
IQ: The Pets.com site has begun selling your image on hats, T-shirts, placemats and other items, and beginning this summer these items will be available in dirt-world stores. Licensing agency Hakan & Associates, which is handling your merchandise, also created products featuring the Taco Bell Chihuahua. How does it feel to see your face on children’s shirts? Have you gotten any tips on fame from the chihuahua?
Sock Puppet: He told me not to do press-on decal shirts. But I’m doing it anyway. What can I say, I like the way they smell.
IQ: The lawsuit between Pets.com and Late Night with Conan O’Brien has been well publicized in recent weeks. Have you and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog tried to sort things out, puppet to puppet? Is there room for both of you in Hollywood?
Sock Puppet: If there’s enough room in Hollywood for all of those Baldwins, there should be room for us.
IQ: Since you’ve come on board, traffic to the Pets.com site has increased and revenue grew 12-fold, from $0.6 million in Q3 1999 to $7.7 million in Q1 2000. What do you attribute this to?
Sock Puppet: Me.
IQ: In February 2000, an original Pets.com Sock Puppet was auctioned on Amazon.com Auctions for $20,100. The proceeds went to Pets.commitment, Pets.com’s philanthropy program. Does it feel weird to know one of your siblings is out there, somewhere, perhaps without a microphone? And what’s your favorite charitable activity?
Sock Puppet: Recent breakthroughs in cloning sock puppets made that possible, and as long as the charity helps make pets’ lives better, I’m for it.
IQ: What’s the one thing all people should know about their pets, other than their inability to drive?
Sock Puppet: When you’re not home they call their friends on the phone.
IQ: Your spots (um, the television ones) have been recognized by Adweek’s IQ News as the best offline campaign for an online brand. How does that make you feel? What do you think was the winning ingredient?
Sock Puppet: Who is Adweek and what are they doing making fun of my I.Q.?
A Sock’s Best Friend
John Hommeyer knows it’s the connection between people and their pets that’s at the heart of Pets.com’s success.
Oly the black lab is very well traveled for a retriever. She’s lived in Cincinnati and Japan, but it’s in San Francisco where she’s finally found home. Every day Oly goes to Pets.com’s SoMa office with her owner, John Hommeyer, where she can frolic with at least a dozen other canines, plus an assortment of birds, fish and even a tarantula.
That connection between people and their pets, according to Hommeyer, is what he’s been charged with conveying to consumers through the Pets.com advertising campaign.
Since joining the online pet-supply retailer a year ago as vice president of marketing, the 11-year Procter & Gamble veteran has taken his brand management skills to a new level with the creation of the Pets.com Sock Puppet. Pictured in ads by TBWA/Chiat/Day San Francisco, the brown-and-white dog, armed with a microphone and a Timex around his neck, has gone from zero to cultural icon in just nine months.
The company has thousands of inquiries about the Sock Puppet, including photos of people dressed like him for Halloween. Clearly, he’s struck a chord with folks who know that pets are family.
Citing Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro man and the Pillsbury Doughboy as inspiration, Hommeyer says, “We believed we needed to develop an ongoing character, kind of an icon to put a face on the company.”
Pets.com toyed with other ideas pitched by Chiat/Day, including a pet psychic and something to do with Dr. Doolittle. “As soon as they presented the Sock Puppet, we just knew,” he says. “There was something magical about the idea.”
The company also considered giving a first name to their spokespuppet, such as Fred or Buddy, but chose not to because “this way people are always saying, ‘Pets.com,’ ” Hommeyer says. He adds that there are many who have no idea who Spuds McKenzie represented (Budweiser), but everyone knows the Energizer Bunny.
Consumer research was conducted in homes and dog parks to find out what pet owners liked and disliked about caring for animals, as well as their shopping preferences. This was honed to one message: “Pets.com makes it easier for you to care for your pet, makes it easier for you to make your pet happy,” Hommeyer says of the site, which offers more than 15,000 items.
Enter the Sock Puppet, a “Johnny Appleseed spreading the good news” to “tons of friends out there in the pet world.” Much of what he says is ad-libbed by actor Michael Black, the voice behind the hand.
The ads have clearly increased revenue and traffic to the site, and Hommeyer said the success has a lot to do with the company’s marketing outlook, calling the campaign a “contrarian story.”
“There’s been a lot of discussion over the last year by some who say marketing in the Internet world is different. Some say there’s so much of it, it could not have all been effective,” he says. “We don’t think of ourselves as a dot-com. We don’t think of ourselves as a cyber-marketer.”
Having already built a brand,
Hommeyer says, there are endless possibilities for future Sock Puppet ads. “We found that the Pets.com Sock Puppet has won share of heart, as well as share of pocket,” he says.
And that’s just fine with Oly, short for Hommeyer’s hometown of Olympia, Wash., who can continue to teach those humans a thing or two at the Pets.com headquarters.–A
IQ Interactive Special Report: IQ Q&A – Sock Dogma
Interview by Adrienne Mand