Penguin Persuasion


All you need is… penguins

If you watched The Apprentice last Wednesday, you would probably agree that you witnessed the creation of two of the worst adverts ever made. I remember thinking that Felipe’s cheesy ‘Aqua Fusion’ ad and Bianca’s mind-numbingly boring ‘Big Dawg’ ad were certainly lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. But now I know quoi. Penguins. 

Penguins are, actually, all around us. John Lewis’ much anticipated 2014 Christmas ad features an adorable CGI penguin called Monty, who yearns for love, only to find it in an equally adorable female penguin, Mabel. The advert has been a roaring (or should I say flipping?) success, being shared 202, 953 times in its first 24 hours online alone. This is almost half the shares that the 2012 ad  – The Journey – has had in its entire life. It certainly tugged on the heart strings of the nation – apparently it has made 14,500 people cry (including me). All this love and emotion has turned into hard cash for John Lewis, too. The Monty the penguin toy- retailing at £95 – sold out within hours of the ad’s first showing, and the retailer’s sales figures are up 5% on last year, at £96m in the week ending 8th November.

Monty and Mabel

The Penguin Effect

And it seems a penguin-shaped ‘halo effect’ is occurring. According to Waitrose, sales of McVities penguin biscuits rose 75% in the week the John Lewis advert came out. David Jones, the supply chain director at Waitrose, has said: “As the nation fell in love with John Lewis’ Monty the penguin it seems people were keen to bring a bit of his charm to all aspects of their day” (Marketing Week). Serious marketing props to McVities for jumping on the penguin bandwagon with this witty advert, blending in seamlessly with McVities tag-line, ‘sweeet’ (more on this later).

McVities Penguin advert
McVities Penguin advert

British Gas have also included penguins in their advert this year, however here they are used as a metaphor for coldness. The Boiler Breakdown Cover advert tells us ‘no one wants to wake up to a chilly home’, showing a little boy waking to find penguins wide-eyed at the foot of his bed. The only problem with this is that most people would avoid mending their boiler at all costs if it meant keeping these little creatures rolling around their home.

British Gas penguins

It’s not just big name brands getting in on the arctic action, either – cast iron penguin ornaments from gardening website ‘gardens2u’ are flying off the selves, as are penguin wine racks from (The Telegraph). Sales of penguin-related toys on eBay are up 300% since the John Lewis ad first aired. It seems public can’t get enough of penguins. 

Penguins from Gardens2you

Not just penguins

It’s not just penguins we love. It’s all animals. Cats, especially, are a social phenomenon right now. According to a recent channel 4 programme ‘Star Paws: The Rise of Superstar Pets’, 15% of all internet traffic is cat related. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has said that “kittens” are the one thing he did not foresee as being one of the main reasons we use the internet today.

Celebrity cats, such as Grumpy Cat, can be gold dust to advertisers who can cash in on their huge fan bases. Sing It Kitty, an advert created by Wieden + Kennedy for mobile network Three, have utilised the virality of cats to great effect. Belting a ballard from a little girl’s bicycle basket, Bronty the cat has been viewed over 5 million times on YouTube. McVities’ new advertising campaign, based on the ‘Sweeet’ tag-line, features fluffy baby animals emerging from packets of biscuits. Grey London, the advertising agency behind the campaign, said “We wanted this campaign to create cute like never before.” Cute is a serious business.


So why does it work?

The use of penguins, and other animals, to get us reaching for our credit cards is not a new phenomenon. Marketers have used animals since the dawn of advertising. Leo Burnett, considered the ‘mastermind’ of using animals in adverts, developed Tony the Tiger during the 1950s (Brown 2010). Andrex Labrador puppies have been on brightening up our screens for 42 years, and the Dulux sheep dog has been around since 1961.

Studies have found that anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to an animal), is successful in advertising because they follow evolutionary psychology (Guthrie 1995). Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that the connection we have with animals has become innate as a means of survival. 

From a neurological perspective, our brains like watching animals. Humans exhibit left frontal lobe activity while watching positive scenes, such as animals, in adverts, and recall more information  (Davison 1993). Sutton and Davidson (1997) found approach-related behaviour increased with left frontal lobe activity. We especially like baby animals. Studies show that humans are attracted to animals with ‘neotenic’ (juvenile) features due to our genetic desire to care for babies. This is referred to as the ‘Kwepi doll’ effect (Lorenz, 1943).*

How long will it last?

So will ‘cute’ last forever? Will all advertising agencies soon be out of a job because all you need is a bit of a fluff and a tail for a fail-safe campaign? Will John Lewis ever stop using animals in its Chrisrmas ads?

Russelll Ramsey, executive creative director at JWT London, is sceptical about the use of animals as a panacea. He defends the use of Andrex puppies due to their strong relationship with the brand, however says:

“I would be reluctant to use animals elsewhere. They can be seen as a quick fix for clients…the big worry is that the animal becomes the idea and there’s a danger of kidding yourself you’ve got a campaign.”

Darren Bailes from VCCP agrees. He says PG Tips ‘Monkey’ and’s Aleksandr Meerkat are so popular because of their complex personalities:

“Using animals for their cuteness won’t work for long. It’s shallow and people move on from it very quickly…People are used to seeing real and complex stories on TV. Why should they demand any less of the advertising?”

(Source: Campaign).

To sum up, simply using a picture of an adorable baby panda on your product’s packaging with no further explanation is probably not going to cut it. The animal must have a strong link to your brand, an emotional story, or a complex personality. Luckily for them, it seems John Lewis has cottoned onto this. Monty the penguin has a fully developed and complicated personality thanks to his Twitter account – we can see all of his texts to Mabel, his romantic side, his cheeky dating site profile, his favourite quotes. He even has a pretty good sense of humour, judging by this tweet:

As long as advertisers continue to use animals in such a creative way,  I believe penguins, and all other animals, will carry on persuading us for a very long time.


*All sources from Stone, S (2014) The Psychology of Using Animals in Advertising [pdf] View online at



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