One of the more unusual ad effectiveness tips from Super Bowl LVII involved tapping the power of a wet nose, four legs and a tail, as WARC’s Maya Yegorova explains.

Dogs are not only a man’s best friend, but can also help advertisers reel in viewers and make an emotional impact on their audience.

“Our number one hack for creating emotional advertising is a dog,” Kathleen Rienzo, senior key account director at research firm System1, explained at WARC’s “Advertising MVPs: the Real Winners of Super Bowl LVII” event in New York.

“It makes you think of your childhood dog. We absolutely can't help but feel emotion when we see a dog on the screen.”

Amazon’s canine play

Amazon’s ad during the 2023 NFL season-closer, entitled “Saving Sawyer”, is a case in point. It told the tale of a loveable, energetic dog that becomes lonely at home as family members return to the office and to school after COVID-19‬ lockdown measures are lifted. The loneliness transforms him into a restless and jittery bundle of energy, breaking household objects and chewing on furniture.

The solution? His owners get a smaller pup (transported home using a crate ordered from Amazon) as a new member of the family and a new friend for their beloved dog.

As proof of its impact, “Saving Sawyer '' took fourth place in System1’s top-ten list of ads from this years Super Bowl, with 4.4-stars.

To put this figure into context, every year System1 gives each Super Bowl ad a star rating of between one and 5.9 stars, based on its ability to successfully elicit an emotional response from viewers. In 2022, the average Super Bowl spot received 2.6 points; in 2021, that total stood at 2.8 points.

In generating those scores, System1’s research methodology tracks viewers’ second-by-second response to an ad. And, for “Saving Sawyer”, it showed that viewers became truly invested in the dog’s journey: The ad creates an atmosphere of alarm when the family starts huddling around the laptop. Are they thinking about giving their unruly dog away? The plot becomes so engrossing that it seemed like the entire country breathed a collective sigh of relief when the new, adorable pup is shown arriving home.

According to the System1 analysis, viewers’ feelings of happiness peaked as the ad nears an end, when the two dogs are shown snuggled together on a bed as sunshine pours into the room. The “emotional intensity” score of the ad stood at 2.21, which is higher than the 1.53 average benchmark from System1’s ad database.

Outside of the emotional aspect, the ad delivers a powerful statement through several elements. Colors symbolize different stages of the story, with a vivid green color defining the new beginning of post-lockdown life, while blue punctuates the screen when the dog starts behaving badly. The mention of a return to office and to the classroom highlights the ad’s cultural references. But it’s the storytelling arch that overrides everything else.

Taking a lead from The Farmer’s Dog

Another dog-focused Super Bowl ad aptly demonstrated why these ads perform so well.

The in-house spot from The Farmer’s Dog, entitled “Forever”, marked the brand’s Super Bowl debut. It starred a chocolate lab, named “Bear”, that’s there for Ava, the human protagonist of our story, as she grows up, leaves for college, gets married and has a child of her own.

This spot from the subscription-based dog food service earned a 4.2-star rating from System1. At the functional level, The Farmer’s Dog broadcasted how the human-grade ingredients and quality of its food lead to a higher life expectancy for dogs; the emotional hook was that this allows our furry friends to be part of the special moments that occur in our lives for a long time.

Such a character couldn’t be a more perfect fit for The Farmer’s Dog as a brand: The devoted “Bear” paints a favorable impression of the service and acts as a de facto brand representative, signaling to the audience that they can trust The Farmer’s Dog to provide exceptional food for their pets.

This kind of symbolism demonstrates how marketers can use our attachment to dogs as a means of demonstrating their own values. Dogs, after all, are associated with traits like reliability and resoluteness, as American children understand that from an early age thanks to watching movies like “Lassie” and reading books like “Old Yeller”.

A faithful insight

The success of dog-centric ads isn’t a new phenomenon, as it’s been proven over and over again that consumers have a special affinity for their four-legged friends.

A 2014 Northwestern Oklahoma State University study, for example, reported that a dog was the most frequently-used animal in ad campaigns, with cats securing second place and horses taking third spot. That was the same year in which Budweiser beer aired an iconic Super Bowl commercial, “Puppy Love”, featuring a puppy and a Clydesdale horse that form a bond. This commercial was one of the most-viewed spots in all of Super Bowl history.

Further corroboration comes from a 2022 study, published in the Journal of Marketing, which discovered that people are more excited to buy products when they see dogs in ads. The same participants were also found to take more chances (and bet money) when ads depicted either dogs or cats.

A neuroscience study from research firm Nielsen and the Ad Council in support of The Shelter Pet Project, a non-profit encouraging people to look to shelters when adopting a pet, also found that viewers’ attention levels dropped when the dog in an ad disappeared from the screen.

What makes these ads appealing to consumers is that, unlike fashions, technology trends or popular songs, the attachment to our pets remains a constant in our lives.

And that suggests that dogs can truly be faithful friends to advertisers that want to connect with consumers in a deep, emotional way.