South to the Future

Because Pets Can't Vote: Pets.com sponsors nonhuman rights initiative

March 22, 2000

SEATTLE -- As an American flag dissolves into a panoramic shot of a sunny day in the park, a woman's voice softly implores: "This November, cast a vote for your favorite dog." As the spot fades to black, creative director Frank Siassi and a crowd of staffers break out in applause.

No, it's not the next attack ad in the presidential campaign, but rather what might be the most outrageous publicity stunt yet in the short history of e-tailing. Pets.com, the online pet goods vendor, has effectively raised the ante on brand marketing in the $14 billion-a-year pet products industry by promoting a bill in Washington state that would extend a wide array of new rights to domestic animals.

The voter initiative, named Proposition 13 in honor of the 13th Amendment, which in 1865 outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, ensures that "nonhuman animals are afforded the common law rights to bodily integrity and liberty" and qualify for equal protection under the law against discrimination in housing, unfair imprisonment, and bodily harm. And despite the somewhat shocking implications of the law, Pets.com, with its enormous cult following among pet "owners," has had little trouble collecting the 20,000 signatures necessary to secure a place on Washington's statewide ballot.

Even though polls indicate that Prop. 13 has little chance of passing, the concept of codifying animal rights in the U.S. legal code is less preposterous than most might think. Just this year, Harvard University's prestigious law school took the unprecedented step of offering an elective in animal rights. And a class action suit pending in federal court in Massachusetts may render "no pet" rules in government buildings and publicly subsidized institutions illegal.

Spurred by this progression in the nation's relationship to domestic animals, the Pets.com marketing team responsible for Prop. 13 plans to put similar bills before voters in eight other states by 2001. "The more we talk to our customers about the unique needs of their pets," suggests Siassi, "the more confident we are that some form of this bill will be a federal law in the next decade."

Citing the booming gourmet pet foods industry as one indicator of the country's growing love affair with its animals, Siassi contends that "the days of pets as noncitizens are numbered." Indeed, according to a clause in Prop. 13, pets would be classified as "secondary citizens," and afforded similar rights as resident aliens.

That language has irked many, even rabid animal rights advocates. Sandra Fifer, a lawyer who works pro bono on cases for the Seattle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, objects to both the letter and spirit of Prop. 13, claiming that it unfairly anthropomorphizes animals. In Fifer's view, the bill violates the single most important right of all animals: "the right to be an animal and not a living puppet for a human being." Moreover, Fifer and fellow Prop. 13 detractors question the interests of Pets.com in helping to fund the ballot initiative. "Is this really about increasing the quality of life for pets," asks Fifer, "or increasing [Pets.com's] profits?"

Certainly, clever television advertising campaigns have been largely responsible for increasing Pets.com's market share. In a wildly popular ad series the company's sock puppet spokesdog urges potential customers to purchase pet supplies online "because pets can't drive." With the pressure mounting for e-commerce operations to differentiate themselves from the pack, Pets.com has effectively turned legislation into advertising. But it's still yet to be seen if politics and pet food make good bedfellows.

Is it ironic? Possibly. Does the company's target demographic love it? "Absolutely," says Eric McEllis, a columnist for the industry publication AdWeek. He believes that other dot-coms will follow suit with similar nontraditional "co-branding" campaigns. "People with pets crave a sense of family and are looking for emotional relationships with their companions," explains McEllis, "so anything that makes animals more like people allows Pets.com to simultaneously serve and expand its customer base."

And that's just what Pets.com is banking on. The company has already spent $2.7 million to publicize the initiative with a slick series of television ads in which the familiar Pets.com sock puppet urges voters to support Prop. 13 "because pets are people too."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.

 
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