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A Brief History of Catvertising

Gavin Finney
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Before there were gifs there were memes. And before there were memes there were lolcats. These were wonderfully low-fi combinations of incongruous cat imagery and often-grammatically-incorrect text that ruled the internet in the early-2000s. The name is of course a portmanteau of ‘laugh out loud’ and ‘cat’ so obvious that at no point in history has anyone ever questioned it.

Possibly because the first ‘lolcats’ can actually be traced back almost 150 years. The image atop this post is a simple portrait by photographer Harry Pointer that was created in 1870. He was the first person to realise the cultural currency attached to cats in amusing poses with something incongruous written underneath. Mr Pointer’s series of postcards was an instant hit with the local Brighton crowd, and his business went through the roof. By 1872 he’d sold more than 100 different captioned images of feline hijinks, and even attracted a series of high-profile copycats around the country.

Fast-forward to the present day and it’s no surprise to see the enduring appeal of cats of all shapes and sizes. Brands, in industries from cars to deodorants, have taken their names; athletic and fashion brands plaster them all over their labels and wares; and some of the most memorable commercials of the last decade have put them front and centre for a variety of reasons. So here, without further ado, is my official rundown (in no particular order) of the best four examples of catvertising to date.

 

‘Be More Dog’ by O2

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIQV9fcUhHw

We start with an attention-grabbing spot that actually didn’t celebrate feline behaviour, but rather questioned it. Tonally I think it’s great, and its message to the audience is clear: don’t be afraid to be different, try something new and challenge your own innate nature.

 

‘Kittens’ by McVitie’s

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxXZ_uEVr9c

Featuring creatures that are almost too cute to be real, this advert for biscuits uses particularly small and fluffy cats to show that sometimes, when times are tough, all you really need is a ‘chocolaty snuggle.’ Amen.

 

‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ by Sainsbury’s

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuRn2S7iPNU

This collaboration with illustrator Judith Kerr could’ve come off as cynical or twee, but somehow it’s just perfect. Not only is Christmas a time for family, but it’s also a time of pulling together to overcome adversity. When every other supermarket seemed to be putting people at the centre of their advertising and yanking on the heartstrings, this simple tale through the eyes of a lovable cat was the one that really made me feel something.

 

‘Cats with Thumbs’ by Cravendale

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdA_fLC7WIQ

Words can’t describe how much I enjoy this. It’s everything I love about the industry, and the world generally. It’s the funniest and most absurd piece of advertising I can think; but it’s not self-indulgent or just silly for the sake of it. I really wish they’d made a spin-off TV series about Bertrum Thumbcat and his lovable bunch of rogues.

 

I guess on the surface, it’s quite simple really. People chance and society evolves, but cats are always cute. It’s easy culture kudos to harness this power and attach your brand or product to a video that your audience would watch anyway. It’s advertising 101: speak your audience’s language.

The industry’s interest in cats goes deeper though I believe. And it goes back to Harry Pointer in the sense that cats embody everything a brand wants their customers to feel about them. Yes, they’re cute, but they can also be fearless explorers and reliable comforters. They have a personality that’s resolutely theirs, but are malleable enough to fit in and around anyone’s busy life. They keep you warm when you’re cold and lonely, and cool you down when you’re hot and bothered.

In truth, they’re ‘home.’ That inarticulate but effervescent sigh of satisfaction that says right now, in this moment, “I’m happy to be me, and I don’t have anything else to worry about.”

It’s no wonder that in 2016, when faced with a latent desire to create a “relaxing, fun and light-hearted” space free from commercial bombardment, the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service (CATS) decided to use photos of our feline friends to cover Clapham Common Underground station. Cats doesn’t discriminate you see; whatever your cause, they’re there for you.

It’s a feeling that this classic Ikea advert (a bonus fifth piece of catvertising) expressed in it’s purest form – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO7CIMy5y4c. I’m sure even the Clapham CATS can’t have taken too much umbrage with that simple and pure distillation of comfort and belonging.

In this modern world of North Korean nuclear testing, political doublespeak and lone wolf terror attacks, that’s more than enough.

P.S. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s reached the end of this article that there is in fact already a bespoke agency dedicated to servicing your unadulterated catvertising needs. When contacted for comment they simply sent this link to watch their catifesto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkOQw96cfyE