Millions Fall for These Tactics, but They Can Leave Your Pet Needy and Sick

processed pet foods

Story at-a-glance -

  • The U.S. processed pet food industry is a multibillion dollar business
  • Part of their formula for success is hiring marketers who are very skilled at playing on the emotions of pet parents
  • Some of the lowest-quality processed pet foods available hide behind beautiful packaging and emotionally engaging advertising
  • As a pet parent, it’s important to know when you’re being targeted by an advertiser
  • It’s also important to understand it’s the quality of the pet food that counts — not the quality of the marketing used to sell it

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

The top five richest processed pet food companies in 2017 were:1

1. Mars Petcare

 

$17,224,400,000 ($17.2 billion)

2. Nestle Purina Petcare

 

$12,500,000,000 ($12.5 billion)

3. Hill's Pet Nutrition

 

$2,292,000,000 ($2.3 billion)

4. J.M. Smucker

 

$2,100,000,000 ($2.1 billion)

5. Diamond Pet Foods

 

$1,500,000,000 ($1.5 billion)

Three additional U.S. pet food companies were also among the top 10 revenue producers worldwide last year: Blue Buffalo, Spectrum Brands/United Pet Group and Ainsworth Pet Nutrition. As you can see from these figures, processed pet food is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country.

Pet Food Advertising Is Designed to Manipulate Your Emotions

I talk and write a lot about the many strategies big pet food employs to attract and maintain their customer base. One of their primary strategies is marketing, which includes product packaging. And in fact, according to PetfoodIndustry.com:

"Appealing to consumers' emotions is key to a pet food product's packaging being successful."

Also …

"Companies that incorporate packaging design at the core perform nearly 200% better than those that don't focus on design."2

It's important to remain aware at all times of how incredibly persuasive product marketing can be as companies constantly work to outdo each other creating packaging and ad campaigns designed to play on the emotions of pet parents. Pet food companies know how we feel about our animal companions, and the bond we share with them provides endless opportunities for marketers to manipulate the full range of human emotions.

Product packaging and marketing is at least as important to pet food companies as the quality of the products they sell, and probably much more important, in reality. 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 parents.

$17 Billion in Revenue Can Fund a LOT of Persuasive Advertising

One particularly disgraceful example of unscrupulous marketing aimed at pet parents was 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 you're dog lover and this ad doesn't move you, 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."3

According to the settlement, Mars Petcare cannot claim that Eukanuba or any of its other pet food formulas can extend a dog's life.4 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 inconvincible minority of consumers, you may give the advertised product a try.

Why It's so Important to Look Beyond the Marketing and Packaging

The Eukanuba pet food shown in the Longevity commercial is 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 byproduct meal and ground whole-grain barley.5

Chicken as the first ingredient is fine, however, it's important to note that raw chicken is about 80 percent water and there is no way to tell the quality of the chicken meat used. 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 byproduct meal, is a 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 byproducts, it's better to avoid them.

Bottom line, this is a relatively low quality dog food that Mars Petcare attempted to sell using some very high quality — and highly misleading — marketing.

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."6 The Longevity ad is a great example of a sensory experience, from the music, to the gorgeous scenery, to the close-up and action shots of the dogs, to the message of giving your pet a longer life.

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 misunderstand me — I'm not against product marketing, although I find the focus on manipulating emotions more than a little disturbing. 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.