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Ousted From Westminster, Does Pedigree Have The Upper Paw?

Ad Age, February 14, 2012

By E.J. Schultz

Nestle Purina PetCare seemed to score a coup last summer when the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show named the dog food brand as its new sponsor, ending a 24-year run with Pedigree.

Now, as the show airs this week, the real reason for the switch has emerged. Pedigree was ousted because its ads promoting pet adoption with sad music and sympathetic pooches were too weepy for the dog show, according to recent reports.

"The feedback we got from our primary audience was that they were seeing commercials that made them want to turn the channel," Westminster spokesman David Frei told the Associated Press.

But Pedigree marketers – who say the switch took them by surprise – might still gain the upper hand in this doggie food fight, thanks to an outpouring of support from pet owners upset with the dog show for making the move. The brand, which is owned by Mars Petcare, has seen a "one-thousand percent increase" in fan engagement on Facebook and Twitter in the last couple days, Pedigree Senior Brand Manager Lisa Campbell told Ad Age. "It's been overwhelmingly positive in support of Pedigree," she said.

Consider this post, for instance, from Facebook fan Denise Abadie Preuss: "Pedigree ... you are part of the solution. I hope that you told Westminster where they could go!!!"

Whether or not the social-media support is enough to overcome the loss of a key sponsorship platform is debatable. However, one sponsorship expert said the odds are in Pedigree's favor. "Pedigree could turn this to their advantage pretty easily," said Jim Andrews, senior VP at IEG, a sponsorship, research and consulting firm. "They still have a very sympathetic cause they are promoting [and] there are lots of other ways to reach dog owners with this message of promoting adoption."

Indeed, on Friday Pedigree will mark its fourth year as sponsor of "The Mutt Show" on ABC's "The View," in which dog owners nationwide submit their mixed breeds to compete along with shelter dogs, a far cry from the pricey purebreds prancing around at Westminster.

The dog show booted Pedigree because their ads missed the mark, Mr. Frei told the AP. "Show me an ad with a dog with a smile. Don't shame me," he told the wire service. "We told them that and they ignored us."

In an interview with Ad Age, Ms. Campbell countered that "we worked with Westminster every year and they had the opportunity to review all of our advertising prior to airing. They were well aware of any of our adoption commercials that would be airing during the show." She said Pedigree was "really disappointed to learn that our partnership was coming to an end after 24 years" but "their long-term vision is completely focused on pure-bred dogs. We, however, are focused on all dogs."

Ad Age tried to reach Mr. Frei but was told by Westminster that he was not available for comment because he was busy with the show, which began Monday and ends today. (Mr. Frei serves as a TV host for the show, which airs on USA and CNBC.)

Pedigree ran several ads during last year's show, and not all featured sad-eyed dogs. For instance, one ad called "doggie dentures"featured toothy, smiling dogsmplugging the brand's "Dentastix" treats. (albeit the narrator talks about gum disease.) Another spot promoting healthful dog-food ingredients showed off happy, tail-wagging pooches.

The ads were by TBWA. Pedigree has since moved to BBDO, which has yet to release new ads. Nestle Purina, meantime, is airing a spot during the showby Leo Burnett/Arc Leo Burnett called "Great," featuring happy dogs sleeping, running and playing. "We believe in unleashing greatness in every dog. Our campaign clearly conveys this message and champions our premium Purina Pro Plan brand as a key ingredient for pet owners to uncover greatness in their dogs," Candy Caciolo, Purina's portfolio director of specialty,breeder and pet acquisition, said in a statement. The dogs in the ad are a "mix of everyday dogs and purebreds," said a spokesman.