Sexuality, death, the supernatural, and animals. Wait-what?
You might be scratching your head and wondering where I’m going with this, or perhaps what these words are even doing together in a (fragmented) sentence.
But they got your attention, didn’t they? That’s because these topics have been proven to appeal to our primal instincts. It is these themes which time and time again captivate us; we’re just perpetually curious about them.
We’ve already covered sexuality within the fashion industry, and today we’re going to explore animals, and their use in fashion advertising. Furry creatures are everywhere, and we’re not just talking about run-of-the-mill domesticated cats and dogs. Perhaps you’ve already seen it-girl of the moment, Cara Delevingne, cuddled up to a baby lion for
Tag Heuer’s latest luxury watch campaign, or her campaign for Mulberry with a white owl perched on her hand (hint: Cara plus atypical animal of choice equals success). While this may seem to be a new phenomenon, the use of animals in advertising actually dates back to the 1800s, and clearly, it works. Animals as accessories add an element of visual interest to an ad, enticing the consumer to stare just a little longer. They’re photogenic, cute, and chic, and tend to evoke a branded image of regality and luxury. But beyond the aesthetic appeal, what are the effects of using exotic animals for the purpose of consumption and brand awareness? Many critics argue that animal rights are being put on the back-burner in favor of haut-couture indulgences.
It wasn’t really until the 1970s that issues of animal rights became a real concern. Philosophers such as Peter Singer and Tom Reagan shed a new light on the welfare of living beings. Singer argued that all beings could experience pleasure and pain, and were thus morally equal, while Reagan advocated for the respect of all non-human and irrational beings. Such movements spread towards the fur industry and practices of animal testing. It was during the 80s that we saw a surge of activists pouring blood (or maybe red paint) on anyone wearing fur. A new dialogue was created concerning standards of moral ethics for animals.
This new discussion heavily devalued any blatant abuse and mistreatment of animals, but at the same time it created a notion of right vs. wrong. When it comes to questions of morality and ethics, right vs. wrong is the furthest things from black and white. You would be hard pressed to find a fashion advertisement depicting animals in situations of cruelty and abuse. Rather, when an animal is used in an ad, they are often times the dominant figure. The eye is meant to travel first towards the animal, and then ideally to the product (or the half-naked girl/guy). An exotic animal evokes a sense of sophistication and mystery.
We see these advertisements and assume that all is well. There is no sign of any exploitation or struggle, and we register this as acceptable. What’s not thought about is what goes on behind-the-scenes because the surface image passes the morally acceptable test. This creates an issue of shallow activism and blurred lines concerning animal advocacy. We do not see the living conditions of these animals, nor the behavioral discipline which some of them endure. Many animals used in fashion advertisements are beaten and shocked, while others are subjected to other forms of neglect and abuse. A study on chimpanzees that were used for commercial purposes found that their instinctive social behaviors were severely inhibited, and that once released back into their natural habitats, they were unable to interact with other chimpanzees.
The use of exotic animals in advertisements also desensitizes the issue of wildlife protection. Endangered species are frequently used in ads, and a study has proven that people are less likely to assume that an animal is endangered if that animal is in an advertisement. We assume that if that exotic animal is posed beside a human, then surely that animal is abundant. This creates a disconnect in public opinion regarding animal wildlife preservation.
This is not to say that all fashion advertisements who utilize exotic animals do not follow proper standards. The issue is that unless one was to be invited behind-the-scenes of a big fashion shoot and closely follow the production team, judging the living conditions of these animals is not a simple feat. With activist lenses, it’s easy to see how the use of exotic animals is controversial. From a marketer’s perspective, however, this can be the key to capturing and keeping consumers’ attentions. The market is heavily saturated, and with attention spans only getting smaller, brands are fighting tirelessly to shock, inspire, and create a dialogue around their product. As competition grows and distractions multiply, it seems as though morals and ethics continue to be compromised. Rules are re-written and ways of thinking are altered. In the end, it’s the classic debate and battle between the corporation and the NGOs.
So there’s something else to think of next time you see your favourite A-lister model posed beside a fuzzy friend.
We would love to hear your thoughts on the debate! Feel free to share them in the comments below.