Perspective: That’s Mr. Pet to You

Semi-moist dog food was a minor miracle—but it's nothing compared to the social climb of dogs themselves

It didn’t make Cronkite’s evening broadcast, but in 1962 the dog food industry was undergoing a revolution. Prior to that time, Americans didn’t have many choices when it came to feeding Rover. Milk-Bone dog biscuits had been around since 1908 (they weren’t just shaped like bones; they were as dry as them too). Then, in 1922, Ken-L Ration introduced the world’s first canned dog food. Despite the disturbing fact that the stuff was horse meat, it wolfed down 90 percent market share by 1941. After the war, General Foods tried to get in on the action with Gravy Train. But consumers had to add water to the dry kibble, and it was messy.

That’s why, in 1961, Gaines-Burgers was the bark heard ‘round the world. A cross between wet and dry dog foods, the patties were soft, moist, and could be stored in the cupboard. Better still, dogs went ballistic over it. By 1962, the miracle pet food had competition—namely, the ad on the right.

Speak! was soft like Gaines-Burgers, but it came in bite-sized pieces that could be used both as dinner and a treat. Better still, notes David Lummis, the Senior Pet Market Analyst for New York-based market research firm Packaged Facts, its advertising was ahead of its time. “It picks up on the same marketing theme we see today: user convenience. Speak! comes in its own bowl. You can serve half and put the other half in the refrigerator. This ad is very smart,” he says. Unfortunately, not smart enough to last. Shortly after this ad debuted, Speak! was never heard from again.

Nevertheless, the ad stands as a testament to something more significant: the social climb that Rover has made over the past 49 years.

While the 1962 canine is clearly parked on the linoleum, our pooch in the 2010 Purina ad opposite looks like the guest on a TV talk show. The ad suggests a near-literal conversation going on between owner (sorry, we mean “human companion”) and four-footed friend. “There’s been a societal shift in the past decade—the anthropomorphization of pets,” Lummis says. “Today, the market is all about dogs as members of the family. In fact, what’s so audacious about the 2010 ad is that Purina doesn’t even show the food.”

Incidentally, the semi-moist category that Speak! tried unsuccessfully to tap has itself disappeared. “The products were not particularly nutritious,” Lummis notes. These days, 60 percent of American dogs chow down on dry food—some, no doubt, from their seat at the family dinner table.