In 1930, the Carnation brand, struggling to sell condensed milk at a time Americans were buying refrigerators, decided to diversify. Its new product was called Friskies—a dog food. It sold well. After WWII, the company elected to take another gamble. If people would pay for a dry dog food that came in a box, what about a similar food for felines? In 1956, Carnation introduced Little Friskies for cats. That stuff sold really well. Four years later, Carnation dropped the dogs and Friskies became a cats-only brand.
Carnation’s corporate experience proved that change is essential to survival, so it’s fitting the company soon found itself at the center of another kind of transformation: Friskies ended up elevating the social standing of house cats themselves.
How did that happen? Advertising, of course. Consider the 2011 Friskies ad, below. A common Felis catus stands as a kind of maestro, conducting a culinary symphony of flavors. The varieties of these Tasty Treasures will “feed the senses,” we’re told, and the canned varieties sound more like menu items than what you’d plop into a bowl on the floor. That the image of a personified cat fails to strike us as unusual underscores what many studies have already confirmed: Most cat owners regard cats as people. A 2009 AP poll revealed that half of all Americans consider cats to be full members of the family, and 43 percent say their cats have their own “sense of style.”
If Friskies newer ad shows the lofty social status cats currently enjoy, the brand’s 1963 ad, below as well, shows how that social ascendency began, according to David Sprinkle, research director, MarketResearch.com Publishing. In a few lines of ad copy, he says, the ordinary feline is presented not as an “it,” but as “she”—complete with flavor preferences and other feelings. “Cats love the true fish flavor,” begins the copy, which goes on to explain that “your cat can eat when and how much she wants. It will stay fresh and appetizing until she has finished the last tasty morsel.” Friskies also describes its flavors as “irresistibly delicious”—another wholly human construction; no cat tries to resist a treat. “For these terms to even make sense,” Sprinkle says, “you have to have a consumer [the cat] who is humanized.”
These days, we do—thanks in part to a company that started out making condensed milk.