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Shelters Spotlight: SF SPCA's Creative Approach to Advertising

This 10-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring animal shelters around...

This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are doing innovative and unexpected things to connect with their local communities and promote positive perceptions of shelter pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

It’s no surprise that in San Francisco, a city renowned for its rich artistic culture and social consciousness, you'll find that the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has out-of-the-box approaches to match shelter pets with good homes. In addition to pioneering animal welfare programs and services for the last 145 years, the SF SPCA’s unconventional advertising techniques have helped them stand apart from most humane societies. Rather than persuading adopters to save animals with heart-wrenching images of sad-eyed cats and dogs, the organization has been changing people's perceptions of shelter animals by collaborating with creative designers, photographers, and directors to create irreverent and memorable ad campaigns.

International branding and marketing agency, G2, created cheeky and playful bus and bus shelter ads for SF SPCA’s “The Kittens Arrived!” campaign, raising awareness about the flood of homeless kittens that come to the shelter during the summer. Their bus shelter ad is interactive and allows people to pose in front of it, as if they’re holding kittens.

“When animals come into our shelter, they’re going to be ok because we market them immediately and we’re very efficient at it,” says SF SPCA Co-President Dr. Jennifer Scarlett. Volunteers at SF SPCA serve as cat and dog “salespeople” on Facebook and Twitter, often using volunteer photographer and local copywriter Rod Kilpatrick’s funny, adorable, and easily shareable photographs, including his Christmas Cat photo series, Halloween Black Cat photo series, and Valentine’s Day Cat photo series. According to SF SPCA’s media relations department, holiday-themed photos with props have gotten far more shares on social media, which most likely correlates to increased adoptions. Although Kilpatrick’s photos have played a key part in attracting adopters, he says that the cats actually helped him become a better photographer.

“I was an amateur photographer and learned as I was volunteering,” explains Kilpatrick. In the beginning, it took half an hour to get one decent shot of one cat, but now, within a few minutes, I have learned how to find something special about each of these animals—maybe a personality quirkand I get them to trust me so that I can bring out what’s special about them in the photographs. I firmly believe you don’t adopt an animal because you pity it, you adopt it because of the joy it gives you.”

Photos by Rod Kilpatrick

To reach the community outside of their Facebook and Twitter posts, the SF SPCA partnered with international branding and marketing agency G2 to create comedic and head-turning bus and online ads that encourage pet owners to visit their state-of-the-art veterinarian hospital. Lotus Child, executive creative director for G2’s San Francisco office, says that because their ads dramatize the fun that pets can offer to their owners, they have been more effective than shelter ads that use guilt as a motivator: “People are more inclined to help out and be a part of the solution.” Like Kilpatrick, Child feels that her job benefits because of her partnership with the shelter: “Doing pro bono work like this helps get the creative juices flowing, because it’s more playful than some of the tech-oriented campaigns we do. Plus, I like that our work is helping animals and doing good.”

G2's "Sorry People, This Hospital is Just for Pets" campaign encouraged people to visit SF SPCA's state-of-the-art hospital.

Not only have SF SPCA’s media strategies increased shelter visits and adoptions, they’ve also educated the public. After discovering that around 30 percent of pet owners in San Francisco bought their dogs from puppy mills in the Midwest and East Coast (and more than half do so unknowingly), they launched a high-concept anti-puppy mill campaign. Their whimsical illustrations with captions not only informed the public about how to detect puppy mill breeders, but also how to adopt in their neighborhoods. The serious topic became even more approachable when the SF SPCA partnered with the world’s most awarded commercial ad agency, BBDO, to make a playful indie music video for a local TV commercial, featuring life-size puppets and high-value production design.

SF SPCA furthered the conversation with their subversive fake breeding site, Bluespring Valley Breeders, making it possible for anyone to immediately link to Twitter and Facebook with information about puppy mills, using alluring messages like “This is the cutest puppy ever! Check out this video!” and “Order online! Your new family member could be just a few clicks away.” Garnering more than 100,000 views and 200 Youtube comments, the fake breeding site was extended into a guerilla marketing campaign in which SF SPCA installed TV flat screens onto newspaper bins in high-traffic areas of the city, replicating the overcrowded conditions of puppy mills. The installation, though shocking, made the community more aware of the deplorable conditions in mills and included newspapers with stories about how to get involved in animal welfare.

By fostering the well-being of San Francisco’s pets through their informative, playful, and even occasionally controversial ads, the SF SPCA takes a holistic approach to ending the cycle of animal abandonment by preventing animals from coming to their shelter in the first place. Scarlett says, “A shelter should be a safety net—not a repository for bad decision or indecision. We try to be that safe place by really being there for people so that all the preventable reasons for abandoning an animal go away.”

Photos and videos courtesy of San Francisco SPCA

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