The Shelter Pet Project: Saving animals with laughter, not tears

October 5, 2009 at 12:38 pm Leave a comment

Are tears or laughter more powerful when it comes to saving the lives of America’s shelter pets?

It’s hard to laugh when you consider the grim numbers: of the 8 million dogs and cats who end up in shelters each year, around 3 million healthy, treatable animals are never adopted. Use whatever word you like to describe their fate – euthanized, killed, put to sleep – the result is the same. Those dogs and cats die.

The problem is, while saying that might make people feel terrible or even cry, it doesn’t address the main reason so many of the 17 million people who are considering adopting a shelter pet each year don’t do it.

Research done by leading international advertising agency Draftfcb discovered that what stops those people from heading to the shelter or calling the rescue group isn’t that we haven’t made them cry hard enough yet. It’s fear that the dog or cat has serious health or behavior problems, is damaged goods.

Sure, people want to save an animal’s life, but they also want to bring home a pet who won’t bite the kids, pee all over the house, or rack up huge vet bills.

The reality, of course, is that the majority of animals who end up in shelters are there for reasons that have nothing to do with health or behavior problems, and everything to do with human problems, primarily the difficulty finding housing that allows pets, or financial trouble in the family — a problem worsening every day, as the economy continues its meltdown.

Changing people’s misperceptions about shelter pets might seem hopeless, but homeless dogs and cats have a group of powerful new champions about to launch a three-year national advertising and publicity campaign that has as its goal nothing less than a total image makeover for America’s shelter and rescue pets.

I first learned about the campaign around a year ago, when I got a call from Lynn Spivak, the director of communications for Maddie’s Fund, the non-profit organization headed up by Rich Avanzino, the legendary director of the San Francisco SPCA who today is the acknowledged founder of what’s come to be called the no-kill movement. Would I be interested in helping them with a project designed to get those 3 million dogs and cats into homes?

My answer was a resounding yes, and that’s when I began working on the Shelter Pet Project, a multi-media Ad Council campaign being sponsored by Maddie’s Fund and the Humane Society of the United States, which launched last week.

In its more than 60- year history, the Ad Council has never before taken on an animal welfare cause. But it’s now unleashed an army of top-tier advertising, marketing and public relations folks, including the creative team at Draftfcb working pro bono, to put together public service advertisements for television, radio, billboards, bus stations, social media and print.

And they’re doing it by making them laugh, not cry.

Take this poor little dog, whose owner is dragged off to prison for insider trading:

Or Scout, a scruffy dog who had the misfortune to be owned by a jerk:

(There’s some great behind the scenes video <a href=" Behind the scenes: here” target=”_blank”>″>here. And in case you were wondering, yes, the Shelter Pet Project is for cats, too… the next ad to be released features a very special cat.)

The campaign isn’t just television ads, though. It includes a series of really funny radio spots taking off on the old “Lassie” series (with the blessing of the Lassie folks!) as well as bus stop, print, web and billboard ads. It’s also got a huge social media component — if you’re a blogger or on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, here are the ways you can show your support — and even its own comic strip. This is a three-year campaign, and new components will be rolled out all the time.

Over the years, I’ve been as guilty as anyone of stressing the “good deed” aspect of adopting shelter pets, and of going for the tears instead of the laughs. But it looks like all of us — pet writers, animal activists, and just plain dog and cat lovers — should stop talking about the dire prospects of those dogs and cats peering sadly out from the bars of cages.

It’s time to start spreading the fun, the love and the happiness of bringing a shelter dog or cat into our families. To remind ourselves that while doing a good deed will give a warm glow when you do it, it’s nothing compared to the tangible warmth of a cat purring in your lap or a dog sleeping on your feet.

Animals bring us joy. That’s the real secret weapon in the war on pet homelessness and death. Let’s use it.…

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