National Post Barbara Kay: The attraction of killer dogs as retail pitchmen

National Post - Thursday March 21st, 2013

There’s a reason corporations spend a fortune on their logos. “Branding” that captivates the public with instant, sympathetic recognition is the holy grail of merchandising.

Animal mascots have proven very successful props in marketing all kinds of products, from insurance (the Geiko lizard) to cereal (Kelloggs’s Tony the Tiger) to web browsers (Firefox) to mattresses (Serta’s flying sheep).

The common thread in the examples above is that they deliver on their task of creating positive brand recognition, but their popularity hasn’t resulted in a rush to acquire lizards, tigers, foxes or sheep as domestic pets.

Before Michael Vick was imprisoned in 2007 for dogfighting, about half the dogs shot by police were pit bulls; post-Michael Vick, it’s about 85%.

That’s not the case with dog mascots. People often acquire puppies or dogs on impulse. As we know from dog-buying trends, a successful product aligned with a particular breed of dog can have an enormous effect.

Remember Nipper the dog listening to “his master’s voice” coming out of the first gramophone trumpet? It was probably the most successful dog-associated ads ever (the initials HMV come from the trope). You can be sure that dog was responsible for many thousands of people running out to buy their very own “Nipper.”

For a more contemporary example, Taco Bell’s Gidget, their Chihuahua mascot introduced in 1994, proved immensely successful commercially, and created a run on Chihuahuas as pets, a breed that had never been popular before in America.

While Taco Bell is a magnet fast food franchise for families, however, the Chihuahua is not a particularly good choice as a family dog. They are irritable and can be nippy. Their tiny size usually (not always) precludes them doing extensive damage, but who wants an aggressive dog of any size when little kids tend to put their fingers and faces near a dog’s mouth?

And that brings us to retail giant Target Stores, recently arrived in Canada (here in Quebec we pronounce it Tarzhay, of course) and their branding mascot, Bullseye, a miniature Bull Terrier, with Target Corporation’s bullseye logo painted around his left eye.

Why, I ask myself, would Target have chosen for its mascot a canine representative of the fighting breeds that are all genetically programmed for taking pleasure in inflicting a maximum of pain for the maximum of time on other animals and humans?

Mascots are sometimes long pondered; sometimes they are the accidental inspiration of the moment. It could be that Bullseye was the end of a long process of deliberation, or it could simply be that the head of Target’s marketing department is a bull terrier fancier himself. Whatever, it was a bad choice.

English Bull terriers are not pit bulls, but they are members of the same fighting cluster, and have been used for bear and bull baiting (still are in Pakistan). They are associated, rightly, with violence, dogfighting and criminality.

I’ve submitted many statistics on pit bull attacks in the past, and I won’t rehearse them anew for this column. I can point any interested readers who contact me to my sources for previous columns. But here are some newly-discovered statistics I have gleaned via Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People News, that I haven’t reported before:

· Since January, 2005, police in the U.S. have shot 305 dogs. Of them 216 (71%) were pit bulls (pit bulls represent about 3% of the U.S. dog population). Keep in mind that police are only called out when human intervention in a dog fight or attack is considered too risky or has already incurred harm to those who have intervened;

· Before Michael Vick was imprisoned in 2007 for dogfighting, about half the dogs shot by police were pit bulls; post-Michael Vick, it’s about 85%, which suggests that revelations of Vick’s kennel of horrors actually increased the desire to own these high-risk, unpredictable dogs.

The bottom line is, and what’s important for Target Corporation to understand, is that their cute mascot will be responsible for many thousands of acquisitions of bull terriers and other pit bull type dogs. They will be acquired because people are not only impulsive, they are so sentimental about dogs, as the Vick case shows, that they are often impervious to rational discourse and statistics, remaining wilfully, even self-righteously ignorant about the genetically programmed nature of the dogs they welcome into their homes.

I have no illusions that Target Corporation will change course midstream when Bullseye is proving such a commercial success. But I hope I have provided kibble for thought for other responsible corporations considering dog mascots in branding their enterprise.