We are deeply embarrassed and beg the forgiveness of M&C Saatchi and Mars Inc. on behalf of an Ad Age staffer who viewed the new Whiskas spot -- billed "The first ever commercial for cats" -- and dismissed it as folly.
"That's so stupid," our colleague remarked, after screening the spot filled with mice, fish, balls of string, packs of Whiskas and similar feline enticements. "Cats have no buying power."
She is, of course, technically correct. Market research confirms that cats seldom buy their own food. Entertaining them in a TV commercial, therefore, could be construed as mistargeting.
Except, of course, for the fact that the first TV commercial for cats isn't for cats at all. It is for cat owners, who do -- statistics show -- buy the majority of cat food worldwide.
In order to influence cat owners, it is necessary first to understand cat owners, and that is where this ad departs from its predecessors. Traditionally, on the assumption that cat owners are fond of cats, the commercials all starred cats. Talking cats, singing cats, dancing cats and -- above all -- eating cats. This approach is perfectly valid, but it fails to thoroughly exploit the defining characteristic of cat owners:
They are completely pathetic.
Unlike dog owners, for instance, whose care, or even indifference, is rewarded with unstinting canine loyalty and affection, cat owners are generally ignored by their pets and reduced to savoring what meager expressions of affection the cat may offer when, infrequently, it deigns to do so.
It's a particularly unfortunate form of unrequited love, like the obsessive suitor who is spurned repeatedly but never gets the message. The more the lady rejects his blandishments, the harder he tries. But when the same woman realizes she needs something from the loser, all of a sudden she cynically feigns interest, getting his hopes up until she gets what she needs. Then she resumes blowing him off as usual.
Likewise, the more aloof and self-centered cats are with their owners, the more unrequited affection the owners feel. So when kitty suddenly abandons its indifference and purrs or nuzzles -- in the blatant self-interest of wanting to be fed, for example -- the gesture is mistaken as an expression of genuine affection.
No, not mistaken as affection. Accepted as affection. Cat people aren't really self-deluding; they know the deal. In fact, that very reserved feline demeanor is what fascinates. Cat fanciers pay jealous attention to anything that does engage their pets, as if to marvel at its power to achieve what pure love cannot.
Long ago in the Ad Review household, before Pang Our Cat was banished for unspecified crimes against humanity, we would be enthralled watching her be enthralled skittering after and fetching little wads of paper flicked across the room. Why? Because she never skittered after us. She treated us like litter.
M&C Saatchi -- with the U.S. adaptation by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles -- clearly understands this phenomenon. Their commercial -- a simple series of objects attractive to felines -- invites the consumer to respond, "Yeah, shiny objects. Yep, balls of string. Yep, the sound of the food container being opened. They know our Fluffy!" Thus deemed simpatico, Whiskas' rare understanding will be confused with affection -- an affection that will be repaid times over at the checkout line. Why? Because, as we have seen, that's how cat owners think. Why?