Advertising and the Cultural Meaning of Animals

Barbara J. Phillips, The University of Texas at Austin
ABSTRACT - One explanation for the proliferation of animal trade characters in current advertising practice proposes that they are effective communication tools because they can be used to transfer desirable cultural meanings to products with which they are associated. The first step in examining what messages these animals communicate is to explore the common cultural meanings that they embody. This paper presents a qualitative analysis of the common themes found in the cultural meanings of four animal characters. In addition, it demonstrates a method by which cultural meanings can be elicited. The implications of this method for advertising research and practice are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Barbara J. Phillips (1996) ,"Advertising and the Cultural Meaning of Animals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 354-360.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 354-360


Barbara J. Phillips, The University of Texas at Austin


One explanation for the proliferation of animal trade characters in current advertising practice proposes that they are effective communication tools because they can be used to transfer desirable cultural meanings to products with which they are associated. The first step in examining what messages these animals communicate is to explore the common cultural meanings that they embody. This paper presents a qualitative analysis of the common themes found in the cultural meanings of four animal characters. In addition, it demonstrates a method by which cultural meanings can be elicited. The implications of this method for advertising research and practice are discussed.


American popular culture has quietly become inhabited by all sorts of talking animals and dancing products that are used by advertisers to promote their brands. These creatures, called trade characters, are fictional, animate beings or animated objects that have been created for the promotion of a product, service, or idea (Phillips 1996). Commercials with these characters score above average in their ability to change brand preference (Stewart and Furse 1986). It appears, then, that trade characters can be effective communication tools. However, it is unclear why this is so. Although trade characters are popular with advertisers and consumers, their role in communicating the advertising message has been generally taken for granted without investigation.

It has been hypothesized that there are several reasons why advertisers use trade characters: to attract attention, enhance identification of and memory for a product, and achieve promotional continuity (Phillips 1996). However, one of the most important reasons for the use of trade characters in advertising may be that they can be used to transfer desired meanings to the products with which they are associated. By pairing a trade character with a product, advertisers can link the personality and cultural meaning of the character to the product in the minds of consumers. This creates a desirable image, or meaning, for the product. The first step in supporting this explanation of trade character communication is to show that these characters do embody common cultural meanings that can be linked to products.

Research has shown that animal characters are one of the most commonly used trade character types in current advertising practice (Callcott and Lee 1994). Animals have long been viewed as standard symbols of human qualities (Neal 1985; Sax 1988). For example, in American culture, "everyone" knows that a bee symbolizes industriousness, a dove represents peace, and a fox embodies cunning (Robin 1932). It is likely that advertisers use animal characters because consumers understand the animals' cultural meanings and consequently can link these meanings to a product. Therefore, the cultural meaning of animals may lie at the core of the meanings of animal trade characters. This paper describes a method for eliciting character meanings, presents a qualitative analysis of the cultural meanings of four animal characters, and discusses the broader implications that these results have for advertising research and practice. This qualitative study of animal meanings is motivated by several issues. Understanding the cultural meanings that consumers assign to animal characters will assist in developing successful advertising campaigns; practitioners can create characters that embody desired brand meanings while avoiding characters with negative associations. In addition, by highlighting an underutilized research method by which the cultural meaning of characters can be elicited, this paper presents a way for practitioners, researchers, and regulators to understand what messages specific characters are communicating to their audiences. This method may be useful in other types of advertising research as well; researchers have asked for measures of cultural meaning for celebrity endorsers (McCracken 1989) and for symbolic advertising images (Scott 1994). Finally, by showing that animal characters have common cultural meanings, this paper builds support for one of the first empirical explanations of how trade characters "work" in advertising, and creates a foundation for future trade character research.

The next section of the paper will present the theories used to illuminate the research question: Do there exist shared meanings that consumers associate with specific animal characters? If so, how can these meanings be elicited, and what are their common themes? The third section will introduce a method by which the cultural meanings of characters can be elicited, and will present the procedures used in this research study. The fourth section will discuss the results of the study, and the last section will draw general conclusions.

Conceptual Development of the Research Question

It has been suggested that advertising functions, in general, by attempting to link a product with an image that elicits desirable emotions and ideas (McCracken 1986). For example, the image of a child may invoke feelings of pleasure, nostalgia, and playfulness. By showing a product next to such an image, advertising encourages consumers to associate the product with the image. Through this association, the product acquires the image's cultural meaning.

Trade characters may be one type of image that advertisers use because these characters possess learned cultural meanings. These meanings are similar to the personalities that consumers associate with characters from other sources such as movies, cartoons, and comic books. For example, Mickey Mouse is viewed as a "nice guy," while Bugs Bunny is seen as clever, but mischievous. Individuals do not invent their own meaning for cultural symbols; they must learn what each symbol means in their culture (Berger 1984) based on their experiences with the character. For example, consumers' ideas about the meaning of "elephant" are shaped by Dumbo movies and African safari TV programs, and colored by news stories about a rampaging elephant that trampled its trainer. Consequently, although each individual brings his or her own experience to the meaning ascription process, consensus of character meaning across individuals is possible through common cultural experience.

In advertising, trade characters' meanings are used to visually represent the product attributes (Zacher 1967) or the advertising message (Kleppner 1966). For example, Mr. Peanut embodies sophistication (Kapnick 1992), the Pillsbury Doughboy symbolizes fun (PR Newswire 1990), and the lonely Maytag repairman stands for reliability (Elliott 1992). However, the consumer must correctly decode the trade character's meaning before it can have an impact (McCracken 1986). Therefore, characters' meanings must be easily understood by consumers if they are to correctly interpret the character's message. As a result, advertisers frequently use animal trade characters (Callcott and Lee 1994), because consumers are thought to have learned the animals' cultural meanings and consequently are likely to correctly decode the advertising message.

The first step in examining the association between animal trade characters and the products they promote is to explore the symbolic meanings conveyed by the animals used in these advertisements. That is, if an advertiser places a bear (e.g., Snuggle) or a dog (e.g., Spuds McKenzie) next to his product, what do these animals represent to the audience? Rather than examine individual animal characters, however, it is necessary to first study an animal's general cultural meaning. This is because the animal category (e.g., bear, dog, etc.) provides the primary, or core meaning of an individual character. Although an advertiser can choose to highlight certain animal meanings over others (e.g., "softness" for Snuggle Bear and "wildness" for Smokey Bear), the core set of animal meanings dictate what is possible for that character to express. Snuggle fabric softener would not find it easy to use a porcupine, pig, or flamingo to express "softness."

In addition, by studying the broad animal category to which the character belongs, it is possible to make generalizations that can help practitioners create and use animal characters effectively. For example, if advertisers know that the animal "cat" shares several positive core meanings, they can create cat characters that capitalize on those meanings. Alternatively, if "cat" meanings contain negative attributes that reflect badly on the associated product, advertisers may want to use a different character.


It is difficult to explore the perceived meaning of a trade character by asking subjects directly, as their responses tend to be superficial and descriptive. "Smokey Bear? Oh, he's brown and wears a hat." Other qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviewing, tend to be time- and labor-intensive C features that advertisers may want to avoid. As an alternative, word association is an easy and efficient method for exploring psychological meaning. It can be administered to a group and can elicit the meanings of more than one animal per session, yet provides rich information regarding cultural meaning. Szalay and Deese (1978) state that because a word association task does not require subjects to communicate their intentions, it decreases subjects' rationalizations, and it taps associations that are difficult to express or explain. Further, word association does not require thoughts to be expressed in a structural manner. Instead, this technique produces expressions of thought that are immediate and spontaneous, and this spontaneity, along with an imposed time constraint, is thought to reduce subjects' self-monitoring and conscious editing of responses. Finally, the method reduces experimenter bias because no organization or categories are imposed on subjects to limit their responses C a primary draw-back of quantitative research.

The word association method is not new; other marketing and advertising researchers have used it to understand how consumers perceive products (Kleine and Kernan 1991) and to determine a product's attributes to aid in product positioning (Friedmann 1986). However, perhaps because it is "old hat," this method has been consistently overlooked and underutilized in consumer behavior research.

In the present study, informants were asked to respond to verbal animal names during the word association task (e.g., "bear") rather than to visual images of the animal. Verbal animal names are thought to elicit broad responses that reflect much of the information that an individual has learned to associate with the category, "bear." In contrast, the way an animal is visually portrayed can narrow its meaning (Berger 1984). A realistic picture of a bear may elicit a different part of the core meaning of "bear" than a cartoon bear. Images of actual trade characters, such as Smokey Bear or Snuggle, may elicit even narrower meanings associated only with those characters. Therefore, verbal animal names were used to generate broad, complete responses. However, it is possible that advertisers could use both verbal and visual animals in a word association task when creating characters. Responses to the verbal animal name would provide core meanings while responses to the visual character would provide a measure of how successfully the particular representation of an animal captured desired meanings. This possibility will be discussed further in the conclusion section of this paper.

The informants for this study were 21 male and 15 female undergraduate students enrolled in an advertising management course at a major state university. Students participated in the study during their regular class time. Of these respondents, 92% were between the ages of 20 and 25. The use of this student sample precludes concluding that the results of this study reflect the "true" cultural meaning of each animal. However, this sample is useful to show that a common cultural meaning for each animal exists in a homogeneous population and can be elicited through research, whether that population is composed of undergraduate students or other target markets of interest to advertisers.

Each informant received a package containing a cover page, an instruction page, and five word association sheets. The instructions for the word association task were read aloud and informants' questions regarding the task were answered. For each word association task, respondents had one minute to write one-word descriptions of whatever came to mind when they thought about the animal listed at the top of the page (Szalay and Deese 1978). Informants were instructed to write these words in the order in which they came to mind and it was stressed that there were no wrong answers. The first animal listed in the package was lobster, which was used as a practice task to familiarize students with the word association method. After completing the practice task, informants' remaining questions about the task were answered. Respondents then completed four more animal word associations, responding to the words: penguin, ant, gorilla, and racoon. The particular animals were chosen to reflect the interests of the author; other animals could illustrate the commonality of animal meanings as well. The order in which the four animals were presented was randomized to control for order effects.

The words generated by informants in response to the animal word association were grouped into categories, or themes that emerged from the data. Each animal was analyzed separately except lobster, the practice task, which was not coded. For each animal, words that were similar in meaning or that had a common theme were grouped together. Each informant's responses were added to the tentative themes discovered in the previous informants' responses, thus supporting those themes or allowing them to be changed (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Guidelines suggested by Szalay and Deese (1978) were followed when identifying common themes.

Words that could not be placed into any category were placed into an "other" category. These words did not have an identifiable association with the animal; they are thought to be associations to words other than the animal (i.e., chain associations) or words that show that the respondent was thinking of something other than the task at hand. There were only 10 to 16 of these words for each animal.

A second researcher re-classified all of the response words into the categories to check the soundness of the themes. There was an initial 86% agreement between researchers; disagreements were resolved through discussion and re-analysis of informant responses. The response words for all of the animals are available from the author.



The themes elicited in response to each animal were illustrated using cognitive maps, representing a pictorial overview of each animal's meaning. The cognitive map summarizes the objects and ideas that informants collectively associate with each animal, and organizes these associations into meaningful themes (Coleman 1992). The cognitive map also identifies the number of times each theme was mentioned, giving an idea of the relative importance of each theme to the animal's shared meaning.


General Results

Informants mentioned between 315 and 386 words in response to each animal, or approximately 9 to 11 words per individual. It was surprising that more than 90% of informants' responses could be classified into six or seven main themes for each animal. In addition, informants' words were easily coded into these themes, reflecting a high degree of similarity between respondents. Also, words with the highest frequencies were mentioned by 8 to 25 individuals which suggests a high degree of consistency across individuals' responses. These results support the idea that there exist shared cultural meanings that consumers generally associate with animals, and that these meanings can be elicited through word association.

Interestingly, although it was not the intent at the outset, the themes that emerged from the data were remarkably similar between animals. The primary themes mentioned by informants include: (a) Appearance, (b) Habitat, (c) Personality, (d) Human/animal interaction, (e) Popular culture, and (f) Behavior. These six categories seem to be most salient for consumers, and may offer the greatest help in creating animal characters for use in advertising campaigns. Appearance summarizes informants' mental image of the animal C how they expect the animal to look. Habitat describes informants' expectations of where these animals live and the objects that surround them. Personality represents the personality traits that informants associate with each animal. Human/animal interaction describes how humans coexist and interact with these animals, while Behavior describes their typical actions. Popular culture highlights cultural references that already exist for each animal, including sources such as television programs, movies, books, and ads. The themes for each animal are given below in greater detail.


A cognitive map of the themes associated with "penguin," along with the frequency with which they were mentioned, are shown in Figure 1. The dominant themes that emerge from the data are Habitat and Appearance. Habitat includes a natural habitat made up of the subthemes of: (a) ice and snow, (b) cold, (c) places such as Antarctica and the South Pole, and (d) water. Informants also listed other inhabitants of this environment such as fish, polar bears, and whales. Informants also mentioned Appearance as an important penguin theme, focusing on the subthemes of: (a) color, which was mostly black and white, (b) body parts such as wings, beaks, and feet, and (c) the formal tuxedo that penguins seem to be wearing. Tuxedo was the most often mentioned word, with 23 mentions. This strong association seems to have affected other themes, as discussed below.

Both of the dominant themes suggest that a penguin is associated with rich visual imagery. When confronted with the word "penguin," it appears that individuals conjure up an image of a penguin, and describe him (Appearance) and his surroundings (Habitat). This interpretation is supported by a third theme, Behavior, which was mentioned less often. This category includes the subthemes of: (a) waddle, (b) swim, and (c) other actions, which also contribute to visual imagery. Behavior was mentioned 44 times, suggesting that respondents frequently visualize the penguin in motion.



In analyzing the dominant themes, it seems that penguins are viewed as having little interaction with humans. The penguin appears to be isolated from all but a few Eskimos (according to two informants) except when viewed in a man-made habitat (e.g., "Sea World"), and even that type of interaction is rarely mentioned (2% of the time). This lack of human/penguin interaction is not surprising given penguins' remote location in the world and the fact that they are removed from informants' daily experiences.

Another theme, Personality, is characterized by a duality; for the most part, penguins are personified as silly creatures (e.g., cute, funny, goofy, playful, etc.) but they also can be viewed as formal animals (e.g., distinguished, classy, behaved, mannered, etc.), even by the same individuals. This contradiction may stem from the fact that penguins are strange-looking members of the bird family and waddle comically instead of flying, but also appear to wearing a tuxedo, a cultural symbol of formality and manners.

The remaining penguin themes are Popular culture and Categories. Penguins are associated with a surprisingly large number of popular culture references including movies, videogames, mascots, and cartoons. Categories refers to the hierarchical categorization of objects, in which an object can be placed in a superset (generalization hierarchy) or a subset (part hierarchy) (Anderson 1990). For example, a penguin is a bird (superset), and a type of penguin is an emperor (subset). In the same way, a group of penguins is called a flock, or a herd (at least for one respondent).


A cognitive map of the "ant" themes is shown in Figure 2. The three dominant ant themes are: Categories, Habitat, and Human/ant interaction. Categories includes: (a) type of ant such as red or army, (b) name of ant such as worker or queen, (c) group of ants such as colony, and (d) classification of ant such as insect. The importance of this theme for ant contrasts sharply with that for penguin; Categories was mentioned 104 times for ant, but only 16 times for penguin. This suggests that the ant themes are less associated with images, and more associated with verbal or propositional knowledge (Anderson 1990). That is, when asked to respond to the word "ant," it appears that respondents retrieve verbal information that they have learned in the past such as: the head ant is called the queen; the male ant is called the drone; ants live in colonies; etc. This interpretation is supported by another dominant theme, Habitat, where the subthemes of: (a) hill, and (b) man-made habitat also appear to contain verbal associations. For example, the most-often mentioned words in each subtheme, "hill" and "farm," could be elicited with a fill-in-the-blank word task (i.e., "ant____"). The same cannot be said for penguin (e.g., "penguin ice", "penguin cold", etc.).

Some imagery is associated with ant, though, as seen in the Habitat subtheme of (c) picnic. For the most part, however, other themes support verbal, non-imagery based associations for ant. For example, the ant's image-based themes, Appearance and Behavior, contain far fewer words (31 and 7) than do these same categories for penguin (103 and 44). Also, many of the words in Appearance, such as antenna, thorax, and abdomen, seem associated with knowledge propositions rather than image. Surprisingly, even the Popular culture theme supports a verbal view because many of the responses in this category make use of word play such as "Aunt Bea" and "antichrist."

A dominant theme for ant that did not exist for penguin is Human/ant interaction. This focus on interaction is understandable given that ants are usually part of informants' daily environment and experience. In this category, ants interact with humans by annoying them and causing them pain; "bite" was mentioned 19 times by respondents. Humans interact with ants as exterminators; we kill them. It is surprising then, that under the theme Personality, ants are personified as having more positive than negative qualities. Words like "strong," "hard-working," and "determined" are used by respondents. Perhaps individuals have learned to associate these positive qualities with ants through stories, songs, and fables such as "The Grasshopper and the Ant," while negative associations such as pest come from informants' own experiences. In the same way as with penguin, there is a duality in the ant's perceived personality C industrious and diligent, yet irritating and better off dead. These strongly negative associations may signal advertisers to use caution in utilizing this animal in ads; advertisers must be sure that only desirable characteristics are transferred to the brand.




A cognitive map of "gorilla" themes is presented in Figure 3. The dominant themes that emerge from the data are Habitat, Appearance, and Personality. Gorilla's dominant themes, like those of penguin, are rich in visual imagery and appear to be visually based. For example, Habitat contains images of: (a) natural habitats such as the jungle, (b) man-made habitats such as zoos and cages, and (c) other inhabitants, most notably bananas and monkeys. In the same way, Appearance is composed of: (a) hairy, (b) colors, (c) size, and (d) body parts like big hands and big teeth.

Gorilla is the first animal in this study to have Personality as a dominant theme. As with penguin and ant, gorilla is personified in two different ways C as a fierce monster with negative attributes, and as a gentle giant with positive ones. The theme Popular culture gives a possible reason for this duality. "King Kong," the movie(s) that portrays a giant gorilla destroying cities and battling other monsters, received 15 direct and indirect mentions, while "Gorillas in the Mist," the movie that portrays gorillas as human-like, endangered creatures received 12.

Human/gorilla interaction appears as another gorilla theme (as it did for ant) even though the gorilla, like the penguin, is remote and removed from respondents' daily lives. While the interaction between humans and ants was concrete and experience-based, the interaction between humans and gorillas is viewed more symbolically by informants, with the subthemes: (a) ancestor, and (b) research. As our ancestors, gorillas were associated directly with humans through Darwin's theory of evolution. Informants also recognized the research link between gorillas and humans as we study them for their benefit (e.g., "endangered") or for ours (e.g., "sign language").


A cognitive map of "racoon" themes is shown in Figure 4. The dominant themes that emerge from the responses are: Appearance, Habitat, and Personality, suggesting that a racoon's personality is an important part of its collective meaning, in the same way as a gorilla's. The words associated with racoon also appear to be imagery-based like those for penguin and gorilla.

Unlike the observations made for other animals, there is no separate theme of human/racoon interaction. The reason for this is that the idea of interaction is woven throughout each category. For example, informants listed both trees and rooftops, wilderness and drainage ditches as racoon habitats. Food included crawfish and trash, and other inhabitants were likely to be both possums and coon dogs. This suggests that the racoon is not seen as having a separate environment like ant (e.g., "hill") or gorilla (e.g., "jungle") which can sometimes overlap with a human environment. Rather, the racoon shares our habitat in an integrated way.

The theme Personality includes: (a) thief, (b) positive qualities like cute and playful, and (c) negative qualities such as sneaky and troublesome. Although informants listed both negative and positive attributes for racoon, its personality does not appear to be a duality, unlike the other animals studied. This is because respondents viewed the racoon as possessing both positive and negative qualities at the same time as part of the same personality role. Racoon is personified most often as a bandit (10 mentions), and also is called a rascal or a scoundrel. It appears that we admire a racoon's intelligence and audacity while deploring the mess they make when the intrude on our property.


This study has supported the view that consumers associate shared meanings with animals and has provided a description of the common themes found in the cultural meanings of four specific animals. In addition, the results of this study support the use of the word association method to elicit those cultural meanings.



Respondents generated six common themes of interest to advertisers in response to each animal: Appearance, Habitat, Personality, Human/animal interaction, Popular culture, and Behavior. It is clear that these themes have practical applications in advertising. The themes of appearance, habitat, and behavior can help define a "natural" look for an animal and its environment in an ad, while other popular culture references in response to the word association task can warn the advertiser if the animal has already been linked to another product or idea. The most meaningful themes for advertising use, however, are personality and interaction. Through these themes, an advertiser can explore the core meanings consumers associate with a specific animal. If advertisers understand this core meaning, they can appropriate all or part of the animal's meaning for their products. Advertisers can match positive qualities to the product attributes or the advertising message, or avoid using the animal if it elicits negative associations.

The benefit of eliciting core animal meanings is that by using the associations that already exist in our culture, advertisers do not have to educate consumers as to what their animal characters mean. Consequently, an ad's message will be more quickly and easily decoded and understood. Many advertisers intuitively take advantage of shared meanings to create suitable characters; this paper presents a method for explicitly capitalizing on the shared cultural meanings of animals in trade character advertising.

This study has theoretical implications for trade character research as well. By showing that animals have common cultural meanings, the results support the idea that animal-based trade characters also embody these shared meanings. Therefore, it is possible that trade characters can be used to transfer a common meaning to a product. Future trade character research should focus on the transfer process by testing the ability of trade characters to influence product meanings.

In addition, the results of this study suggest interesting avenues for future research regarding visual trade character meanings. How does the core meaning of an animal character (as determined through consumer response to a verbal animal name) relate to the meaning of the character's visual image? For example, a study could compare teens' responses to the word "camel" on a word association task with their responses to an image of Joe Camel. Does Joe retain his "camelness" or are his meanings entirely different? How do Joe's meanings, as an animal, compare to the meanings of the human Marlboro cowboy? The meanings of many existing animal characters could be explored using these methods.

The use of the word association method has applications beyond trade character research. McCracken (1989, p. 319) calls for the creation of an instrument to "detect and survey" the cultural meanings that are present in celebrity endorsers. Scott (1994) states more generally that an exploration of how symbolic advertising images are interpreted in consumer culture is needed to advance consumer behavior research. Given its success in eliciting the cultural meaning of animals, the word association method seems suited to explore the cultural meanings of celebrities and symbolic images in advertising as well.

In conclusion, this study has shown that consumers associate shared cultural meanings with animal characters. These meanings can be elicited through the word association method, and contain common themes that can be used to further advertising theory and practice.


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