By Dr. Becker
Recently I came across a headline in a pet food industry journal that read, "Appealing to consumers' emotions is key to a pet food product's packaging being successful."
It reminded me just how incredibly persuasive product marketing can be as companies constantly work to outdo each other creating packaging and ad campaigns designed to play on people's emotions. I think this is especially true for pet products.
Pet food companies are keenly aware of how pet guardians feel about their furry companions, and that human-animal bond provides fertile ground for marketers to manipulate the full range of human emotions. And it pays off in a big way.
According to PetfoodIndustry.com, "Companies that incorporate packaging design at the core perform nearly 200 [percent] better than those that don't focus on design."1
It's important to be aware that packaging and marketing is at least as important to pet food companies as the quality of the products they sell. The biggest players in the industry make huge profits selling poor-quality pet food through manipulative marketing that wins over the hearts and minds of pet owners.
The Ugly Truth Behind a Beautiful Ad Campaign
One particularly egregious example of unscrupulous marketing aimed at pet owners is a 2015 Mars Petcare U.S. advertising campaign for Eukanuba dry dog food.
The company claimed their food could extend a dog's life by several years, and they produced an absolutely stunning commercial titled "Longevity" to advertise their "findings." If this ad doesn't tug at your heartstrings, nothing will:
The marketing campaign ran on TV, online and in print, and cited a 10-year scientific study that claimed to show Eukanuba could extend dogs' lifespans by 30 percent or more.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) disagreed, stating the study showed dogs fed Eukanuba lived no longer than dogs of the same breed typically do:
"Two-thirds of all Americans have pets at home, and they spend billions of dollars to ensure that their pets are healthy and well-fed," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
"Pet owners count on ads to be truthful and not to misrepresent health-related benefits. In this case, Mars Petcare simply did not have the evidence to back up the life-extending claims it made about its Eukanuba dog food."2
According to the settlement, Mars Petcare cannot claim that Eukanuba or any of its other pet food formulas can extend a dog's life.3 This is a case of a pet food company making overt and ostensibly false claims about a product. In most cases, marketers don't step over the line into fraud, because they don't have to.
It's not necessary to outright lie to push all the right emotional buttons to create customers.
If a pet food commercial leaves you smiling, laughing or feeling grateful for the bond you share with your dog or cat, unless you're among the "unswayable" minority of consumers, you're likely to give the advertised product a try.
Don't Be Fooled: It's What's Inside the Attractive Package That Counts
It might interest you to know that the Eukanuba pet food shown in the "Longevity"commercial appears to be a kibble formulated for adult large breed dogs.
In looking at the label of the same or a very similar Eukanuba product, I can see that the first five ingredients are chicken, corn meal, ground whole grain sorghum, chicken by-product meal and ground whole grain barley.4
Chicken as the first ingredient is fine, however, it's important to note that raw chicken is about 80 percent water. All that moisture is lost during the cooking and processing of kibble ingredients, which means the chicken will account for a much smaller percentage of the finished product.
Three of the top five ingredients in this kibble are grains, which are biologically inappropriate for dogs.
The corn meal (which is likely the leading ingredient after processing) is an inexpensive and typically genetically modified grain that offers minimal nutritional value and is also highly allergenic for many pets. Corn also poses a significant mycotoxin risk.
The remaining ingredient, chicken by-product meal, is rendered product created from what's left after the real meat is removed from the chicken. This slaughterhouse waste can include beaks, feet, feathers, undeveloped eggs, wattles and combs.
There could be something beneficial in the mix, like the heart or gizzard, but because there's such potential for undesirable pieces and parts in by-products, it's better to avoid them. Bottom line, this is a relatively low-quality dog food, being sold using some of the highest quality marketing in existence today.
Be a Savvy Consumer: Learn to Spot Marketing That Targets Your Emotions
I think it's important for pet parents who feed commercially available dog and cat food to be aware that marketers are highly skilled at influencing consumer purchases. They are in the business of "… find[ing] ways to help consumers relate to the product." According to Melissa Ross, director of marketing and education for pet food company Oxbow Animal Health, "The more ways you can engage [consumers'] sensory experience, the better."
As a pet parent, it's important to stay alert for pet food marketing tactics. When a company claims to want to "help" you relate to their products or "engage" you with a "sensory experience," you're being targeted. Some of the most fabulous packaging and advertising you'll ever see is behind some of the poorest-quality pet foods on the market.
Now, don't get me wrong — I'm not against product marketing, although I find the intense focus on manipulating emotions rather unsettling. What really bothers me is when producers of low-grade pet food unsuitable for the dogs and cats for which it's intended, market the stuff as if it's the healthiest diet you can offer your pet. For help selecting the very best food for your dog or cat, take a look at my recently updated best-to-worst pet food rankings.