Animal e-ttraction

Animal e-ttraction



I first saw him more than a year ago. It wasn’t love at first sight. Despite his best efforts to impress, I found him quite annoying. He was too obnoxious, too loud and quite honesty, too funny-looking. I’d run into him once in a while. I’d see him shopping or playing Frisbee in the park. Then he sang to me during the Super Bowl. Everything blurred but his white-and-brown cotton face and his mismatched eyes as he sang an endearing rendition of “If You Leave Me Now.”

That night, I searched for him. It didn’t take much. A few clicks and I found him, the spokespuppet for Pets.com, the online pet superstore. My own pets were purring at my feet. I browsed, and I bought. The beauty of ordering pet supplies online—mostly food—is bulk quantities delivered to your door. The good news for me was I didn’t need to buy cat food for months. The bad news for Pets.com is I didn’t need to buy cat food for months.

For a while, I paid attention to the sock puppet’s missives. On a couple of occasions, I accepted his invitation and ordered a trinket or two—unnecessary but loving gifts for my feline friends. Even though I visited him more often than Petopia.com, which once reaped the rewards of my cats’ spoiled lifestyle, the attraction soon wore off. His sticker portraits still decorate the litter box, but his letters were trashed, unopened.

Months later, when I heard that Pets.com was shutting its virtual doors, I felt a vague sadness for the playful character created by TBWA\Chiat\Day. Until I experienced e-commerce, I had never made such an immediate and conscious ad-inspired purchase. (Earlier, I had experienced a similar, though more fleeting relationship with Outpost.com. Thanks to Cliff Freeman and Partners, gerbils shot out of a cannon piqued my interest enough to, as the ads said, “remember” the name.)

Rationally, there’s no need for me to order online. I’m within blocks of two bricks-and-mortar pet stores. But little about shopping is predicated on need. My desire, however, was created by that peculiar little pup. The advertising led me to explore the site. The novelty, convenience and security I felt from a “connection” with the brand, via its ads, led me to purchase items. Yet despite my being the ideal target for Pets.com (a single woman with an unhealthy attachment to her pets), the company failed to keep me as a repeat customer.

Pets.com didn’t deliver on the good feeling its advertising produced in me. Based on that elusive emotional connection Bill Bernbach talked about, I was willing to pursue a lasting relationship. But there wasn’t enough substance to the sock puppet. So I left him.

Too often advertising is blamed for a company’s missteps with its product. In the case of Pets.com, the advertising was successful. It created a brand where there was none. Pets.com spent more than its competitors on marketing and had heavier traffic to show for it. But the advertising, no matter how popular, couldn’t compensate for a flawed business model.

Despite its death, Pets.com makes a case for the power of popular advertising. Its short history, high visibility and unproven Internet home make it harder for critics to lay responsibility for its demise on advertising.

When Taco Bell, a year after TBWA\C\D’s “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” campaign won a Grand Effie for marketing effectiveness, switched agencies, citing stagnant sales, no ad solution was debated more intensely than that saucy Chihuahua. But unlike its canine cousin, the sock puppet did not have baggage, years of muddled advertising messages and the bulk of parent company Tricon weighing it down.

The Chihuahua clearly had a following, but once interested consumers walked through its doors, Taco Bell had to keep them. If the chalupa tasted any better, I may have become a Taco Bell convert. Instead, I stick to local taquerias that know how to make a good chimichanga, not good advertising.

Casting advertising in the role of fall guy for a company’s problems isn’t new. Yet agencies still feel the sting when a celebrated campaign is stripped of its laurels and a client chooses a new agency partner. Everyone in the industry takes note when a beloved campaign is shelved. The old debate about advertising effectiveness then rages. Questions about the value of entertainment in advertising are raised, and the creatives whose mantra is product, product, product sit back and grin with satisfaction. Yet when the same thing happens to them, when one of their “effective” campaigns is abandoned, no one notices. It’s just another day in advertising. When it’s one of the rare campaigns that touch pop culture, it is an opportunity to find fault and lay blame. And it’s still a loss.

“I have learned that you can’t have good advertising without a good client, that you can’t keep a good client without good advertising, and no client will ever buy better advertising than he understands or has an appetite for,” Leo Burnett once said. Thus, the case with Pets.com. The client had what many would say is a marketer’s dream: a pup star who reached consumers. Yet the dream was discarded and mismanaged due to circumstances beyond the agency’s control.

The sock puppet’s 15 minutes of fame are over. All I have to remember him by are those crusty stickers and the $20 puppet I ordered online. I’ll cherish the moments we shared together and eagerly await the arrival of another great campaign.

It’s true that when creativity is properly exercised, it can often result in greater sales. But creativity can only go so far. Even as scientific as ad studies can be, they cannot pinpoint the campaign as the key reason for success. Many elements contribute to sales besides persuasive advertising. As endearing as the sock puppet was, as funny as the Chihuahua could be, there’s no substitute for quality fare.

Eleftheria Parpis is the creative editor of Adweek.