The Personification of Animals

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At the beginning of October, Virgin Media launched its new “Big Kahuna” campaign featuring TV spots from new characters called Ed the Sofa Bear and Ally the Night Owl. Richard Branson or Usain Bolt are nowhere to be seen and instead we get animals in human poses displaying human emotions in human settings. The concept is the brainchild of BBH and Big Red Button and aims to use “animal archetypes to celebrate the different ways people watch TV”.

Ed the Sofa Bear and Ally the Night Owl are just two characters from the set: other characters in the campaign that have yet to see screen time include Sue the Content Squirreler (a squirrel), Sam the Remote Controller (a hippo) and Jamie the Screen Juggler (an orangutan).

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A voiceover explains Sofa Bears like Ed often hibernate in front of the TV for entire weekends, which is why they go for Virgin Media and its huge library of movies and Box Sets.

These adverts could easily be contrived and clichéd, but they aren’t. They resonate with the viewer emotionally and the way the animals have been styled makes the creatives funny in an earnest way that many other brands try so desperately to muster. We all know an Ed the Sofa Bear, or at least we think we do.

Each character represents a different TV-watching archetype, helping demonstrate the flexibility of Virgin Media’s comprehensive entertainment service.

Take a step back for a moment and imagine these adverts with humans taking the lead instead of the animals. Would they evoke the same reaction? Would they convey the message as well? Would they sell as many Big Kahuna bundles? Would they merit a blog post?

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The answer, with 99% confidence, is no. There is a long history of adverts featuring animals that mimic the actions, personalities and emotions of their human counterparts. Some of the most prominent of these are PG Tip’s chimp adverts from yesteryear. Viewers could watch chimps dressed in human clothing make tea in a regular house, whilst actors provided voiceovers for the chimps. These adverts were iconic and hugely successful, running from 1956 to 2002. Their replacement was a puppet monkey.

Staying with the primate theme, the 2007 Cadbury’s advert featuring a drumming gorilla has also achieved iconic status. Who would have thought a gorilla channelling its inner Phil Collins would resonate so strongly with the viewing audience?

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So why do advertisers use animals to sell their products? Check out Barbara J. Phillips‘ 1996 research paper that discusses advertising and the cultural meaning of animals. It’s now somewhat dated, but her findings still ring true today: consumers associate shared meanings with animals. These shared meanings aren’t necessarily the same with humans.

These animals are home to “learned cultural meanings” and when we see an animal in a human situation we find humour in the way they depict an archetype. A gorilla shouldn’t be drumming, a chimp shouldn’t be sitting on a sofa drinking tea, and a bear shouldn’t be relaxing on the sofa watching a box set of his favourite TV show. Using animals as a vehicle for a message is both emotive and effective because it takes what we know and substitutes it with an embodiment of shared meaning.

Virgin Media really hit the spot with its Big Kahuna campaign. Personifying animals in adverts doesn’t mean your creative will be a sure-fire success. However, using animals in a way that plays with archetypes and dropping in some clever and relatable humour is a tried and tested formula that is likely to reap rewards.


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