You would be hard pressed to go even a few minutes without hearing some sort of campaign news this election year. Relatedly, the product market for people has seen an uptick in politically themed products—and the pet market is no different.
From waste bags to treats and toys, there’s no shortage of goodies that consumers can find to get their pets involved in the pre-election chaos. And such products illustrate at least two important principles of people and their relationships with their pets—namely, the importance of pets to identity building, both on the political stage and in Americans’ daily lives.
As industry players, retailers understand the value of marketing to product sales. And with the pursuit of marketing knowledge often comes the exploration of consumer psychology. Taking time to understand consumers’ choices (and the patterns they form) is essential to making a sale.
So, what do the latest Nike or Vans shoes have in common with a doggie waste bag with the face of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton on it? As purchasable products, they allow for consumers to express themselves through the choices they make at the cash register.
How individuals view themselves and want others to view them has a lot to do with how they spend their dollars. Do you fancy yourself an outdoorsman? Others might assume so by your Patagonia gear. Are you totally into the health and wellness trend sweeping just about every product category? You might buy your groceries from Whole Foods. And what are your political opinions? One might get a clue from your dog’s waste bags.
The Science of Self-Expression
According to an article published in 2011 by The Atlantic on the history of modern marketing, branding as we know it was born in the 1950s. As consumer packaged goods companies noticed rising quality levels of competing products, brand managers were hired to help distinguish products from their competitors in the minds of consumers.
As a result, products became so much more than solutions to problems, and selling them transformed into more than having the best formula in the field. Companies, too, came to represent abstract ideas and qualities that would come together to reflect back on those that chose to buy from them.
Many studies have since been conducted examining the science behind self-expression and how the process relates to marketing and sales. In a study presented at the 2013 World Conference on Business, Economics and Management, researchers from the Bucharest University of Economic Studies posited that “consumers will tend to choose a brand that they consider congruent with their self-image.”
“In this particular way, each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice,” the paper explained. “By choosing a particular brand, a person may reaffirm both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are.”
Introducing pets to the equation adds another layer of psychology.
My Pet and Me
In many ways, the strength of the pet market rests on the growing trend of pet humanization. In many cases, furry friends are as much a member of the family as any human relative. Similarly, many pet owners have been known to describe their pets as their “best friends.” But researchers may take that idea even a step further: your pet is an extension of yourself.
In 2014, the Canadian Center of Science and Education published a study on purchase behavior of dog related products and services. In-depth interviews were used to determine patterns and themes in the subjects’ purchasing behavior.
“Dog owners who view their dogs as their extended self made purchase decisions as though they were purchasing and consuming these products and services for themselves,” the report concluded. “This understanding offers practical insight to marketers when marketing dog related products and services.”
Pet owners evaluate products and services meant for their companions as if they were the direct consumers —which, as a side note, might explain recent trends in the emerging “natural” category.
Knowing that shoppers use products to express themselves, and taking into consideration that pets are often an extension of their pet owners, it’s no surprise that pet products are often consumed as a means of expressing the owners’ interests. And pet products that are politically themed allow customers to do just that.
According to Stanley Coren, PhD, F.R.S.C., writing for Psychology Today’s Canine Corner, “we often buy gifts for the dog, and just like the gifts that we might give the children, spouses and other family members, these gifts are often more of an expression of our own personality rather than perfectly suited to the gift’s recipient.”
The History of Pets and Politics
Just as the identities of everyday people are in part built through the consumption of various products and brands, so too are those of our leaders. Perhaps even more importantly, pets have played a vital role in politics, and have been present in the lives of politicians dating back to the country’s inception.
“In a world of partisan politics, divisive issues and five-second sound bites, these pets give politicians a connection with voters and constituents, helping to bridge the gap between Washington, D.C., and Main Street America,” said Samantha Johnson, writing as a part of Petco’s Dogs in Politics Day celebration.
Johnson goes on to cite the iconic “Checkers speech” by Richard Nixon in 1952, during which the then-Senator and vice-presidential candidate under Dwight Eisenhower attempted to refute claims that he improperly spent tens of thousands of dollars in donations. In passing, Nixon mentioned one gift that might in fact be problematic: the family’s cocker spaniel, Checkers.
“And you know, the kids, like all kids, [love] the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what [people] say about it, we are going to keep it,” Nixon said.
According to historians, the speech was able to close the gap between Nixon, a politician, and the public. The televised speech detailing the candidate’s finances was uncommon for the era, and changed the way the nation expected to interact with its leaders. With that, personality was introduced to the political landscape as an important factor in determining elected officials’ career paths, and a star was born: the politician’s pet.
Since then, the integration of personality, pet ownership and politics have affected the political realm and the product market in different and complex ways. However, what is simple is the fact that political products are popular with consumers because they allow them to express their own opinions through their furry friends.
Political Pet Products
The hype surrounding the 2016 election cycle has given birth to accordingly themed products in almost every category of the pet market. From costumes to dog waste baggies, manufacturers have taken note of consumers’ enthusiasm to express their opinions through the products they purchase for their pets.
Following a successful launch during the 2012 presidential race, MetroPaws has released limited edition Smear Campaign dog waste bags featuring the 2016 nominees from either political party. The Democrap edition in blue features Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s face, and the Repooplican edition in red features that of Republican nominee Donald Trump. Both are degradable and durable, with 80 bags in each pack.
The goDog Checkers Collection features both Donkey and Elephant plush toys. The company’s proprietary Chew Guard Technology provides extra toughness. According to goDog, they are the only brand with a full one-time replacement guarantee, which is outlined at www.goDogFUN.com. Squeakers add another level of engagement for pets, and the toys are available in small and large sizes.
Celebrity Pet Toy Company also manufactures products for politically inclined pet owners who would like to extend that self-expression ability to their pets. Their 2016 election-inspired musical toys include Trumpet for the GOP, which is a plush dog toy that makes a trumpeting noise when squeezed. Its Democratic counterpart, Bark for Hillary, plays a snippet of “Hail to the Chief.”
Rubie’s Costume Company, which also produces costumes for humans, has a line of pet outfits that includes the Pawlitical Billionaire Wig and Business Suit.
In the spring of 2015, Merrick Pet Care presented two potential new dog food recipes: Election Day Buffet and Presidential Platter. The contest, which would determine which of the two recipes would debut as a limited edition seasonal recipe for Fall 2016, drummed up much debate and voting among consumers. Ultimately, Presidential Platter would take home the win. The grain-free dog food was selected in the company’s “Can-paign” contest, and is comprised of turkey, salmon, carrots and green beans in gravy. Following the “election,” Merrick Pet Care released a promotional video of a can of the Presidential Platter recipe “accepting” its victory: “I’m proud to serve (and to be served to) dogs everywhere.”
Like many manufacturers, Merrick Pet Care took advantage of the excitement of the political season in order to drum up participation among their online following. Retailers would do well to understand the importance of the season and inspire consumers’ political passion.
Of course, manufacturers are sure not to leave cat owners out of the important opportunity for self-expression, and Politikats is one keen example of a company with a strong mission statement through which consumers can express their perhaps similarly strong opinions.
“Inspired by our global leaders, Politikats is here to help get your kitties’ claws into our most ‘beloved’ politicians,” a company press release stated. “Our satirical cat scratching posts protest against regimes and governments that deny their citizens the right to an open and free Internet, [that use] censorship, that consistently destruct the environment at the detriment of future generations, that are involved in corruption and the disregard of human rights. We hope to bring attention to the flaws of our current systems of governance and hold our leaders accountable in a different and fun way.”
Politikats scratching posts are available in limited numbers, with varieties featuring Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin and more. The company recently announced the release of a cat post featuring Barack Obama, in response to popular demand and to commemorate his leaving the White House. The posts are constructed with premium all-natural sisal rope and stand 24 inches tall.
“Following the November election, Politikats will donate five percent of holiday sales to our local SPCA,” the company’s statement continued. “Our goal in the future is to select one monthly NGO, ranging from privacy to environment to human rights, to highlight their achievements and donate a portion of our sales. Our hope is to turn their notoriety and reputation into something good.”