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Perspective: Testimonial Dinners


For all the wonders that 21st century technology has brought to the world of packaged foods—for people and pets alike—there’s one nut that’s proven perennially tough to crack: Appraising the taste of cat food. Just like any good brand, cat-food manufacturers sink no shortage of time and effort into R&D. (Hill’s palatability-testing facility boasts some 170 nutritionists and technicians, plus 450 cats in residence.) But for all the white-coated laboratory protocols, how is anyone really supposed to know if that glop in the bowl tastes any good? Cats are finicky eaters with highly individual preferences—and it’s not like any of them can fill out a survey sheet.

As it turns out, the unnerving question that arises at feeding time (“Does my cat really dig the taste of this stuff?”) also appears to be the driving force behind a marketing tack that’s barely changed since commercial cat foods made their debut shortly after World War II. The reasoning goes something like this: Since you’ll never know if your cat’s taste buds are tickled over that kibble or not, you’ll just have to take the brand’s word on it.

Historically, cat-food companies have suffered few reservations asserting their authority in this regard. A 1963 ad for Friskies proclaims its chicken flavor “delicious,” and guaranteed consumers that if they served the stuff to kitty, “she’ll love you for it.” A 1975 ad for Purina’s Tender Vittles proclaimed that the “new tastier tasting” flavors would actually make your cat “go cuckoo” with culinary bliss. And in the 1968 ad on this page, buyers were assured that, whether they chose the Dairy Dinner or the Gravy Dinner, all it took was a little water to create “the sauciness cats crave.” As David Lummis, senior pet market analyst for Packaged Facts observed, the ad’s entire selling proposition “is a fairly obvious attempt on the part of the advertiser to apply the human consumer’s sensibilities to pet food on the basis of what a human would enjoy.” Then again, what choice was there—asking the cat to voice its own views?

Well, actually, yeah. And this is why the 2012 ad for Iams cat food, opposite, represents such a radical break from the feline marketing norm: Finally, we’ve got a cat telling us what it wants to eat. Well, at least in a figurative sense.

“The cat is asserting itself,” Lummis noted. “He’s roaring like a tiger: ‘You’d better give me what I want. I’m no fool.’ ” The Iams ad falls in line with what Lummis terms the “pet humanization trend”—the belief that pets are no longer living possessions, but full-fledged members of the family. And indeed, the autonomy of this orange tabby goes well beyond reminding we idiot humans that all cats are meat eaters. “There’s the outdoor setting,” Lummis said, “which suggests a certain level of freedom” for the cat—who’s not just showing off a fine set of fangs, but raising his right paw just for effect.

Of course, the reality of it is that our furry little friend emerging from the weeds in the 2012 ad is no more capable of telling us he prefers Iams than his forebear crouching on a kitchen floor in the 1960s was able to “crave” Purina. But the shift in endorsement, however feigned, demonstrates a colorful break with decades of tired marketing.

Too bad we still don’t know if that glop in the bowl tastes any good.

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