Using Effective Language in Campaigns for Animals
An Animal Rights Article from


Humane Research Council (HRC)
November 2009

HRC asked Mike Markarian to provide examples of how to integrate research into campaigns/programs.

We recently launched a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to drive people to low-cost spay and neuter services for pets in Louisiana and Mississippi. We wanted to determine what messages would work, and we based our advertising campaign around those themes. We found that people did not respond to cute, cartoonish images of animals, and did not respond to messages about spaying and neutering being better for their pets’ health. They were only motivated to have their pets sterilized when they learned that their own pet not being spayed or neutered was directly related to the euthanasia of other pets at their local animal shelters.

Our ads use specific euthanasia statistics for Louisiana and Mississippi, so the issue is localized. People did not respond to words like “euthanasia” or “killed” but were motivated by language such as “put down” or “put to sleep.” We also found that talking about euthanasia did not paint a negative picture of animal shelters, and people did not blame the shelters for euthanizing animals.

This research challenged longstanding assumptions in the animal welfare movement: Many groups have been promoting spay/neuter with the wrong images, the wrong language, and the wrong messaging for a long time. For years, we’ve been using cartoon dog and cat characters, and talking about reducing ovarian cancer, which just hasn’t worked. And many groups have been afraid to talk about euthanasia because they felt it would demonize shelter workers. We found that an absolutely opposite approach was what worked, and a different formula was needed in order to drive behavior change.

Tell us a little about how you specifically used research for Shelter Pet Project w/ the Ad Council.

We surveyed the existing data on pet ownership and conducted additional polling and focus groups to determine attitudes and behaviors toward shelter pet adoption. We found that only about 20% of pet owners procure their animals from shelters, and 80% get them from other sources (breeders, pet stores, friend/neighbor, etc.). Many people who are looking to get a pet in the next year are considered “swing voters”—they don’t yet know where they’re going to go to obtain the animal and don’t have a strong preference. If we can influence just a small percentage of those “swing voters” and steer them toward the animal shelters, we can end euthanasia of healthy and treatable pets in this country.

We also found that the main barrier to shelter adoption is that people have a misperception of shelter animals as “defective” or “bad” pets. They assume the pets were relinquished to the shelters because they had behavioral problems and they assume pets from other sources are higher quality. We designed our public service advertising campaign specifically to address that issue, and inform people that pets usually end up at shelters through no fault of their own (because of a family’s divorce, financial trouble, allergies, etc.) and that shelter pets are good pets. By breaking down the main barrier to shelter pet adoption, we will drive more swing voters to the shelters as their first choice.

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