What Works: Spay/Neuter Advertising
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Anthony Bellotti on Humane Research Council (HRC)
November 2011

Our point is not to criticize (or promote) any one group’s work on behalf of companion animals. Our objective is to explore the strengths and weaknesses of various ads while drawing lessons from the existing research to improve our collective work on behalf of spay/neuter campaigns.

Why do some advertisements work while other promising campaigns fail inexplicably? In this series of blog posts we will explore this question as we conduct a “post-mortem” analysis of print advertisements from the animal protection movement. Our investigation is driven from a research-based perspective in an attempt to answer what went right, or wrong, in various ad campaigns.

The subjects of our analysis will be selected from major issue areas (e.g. companion animals, factory farming, animal experimentation etc.) and will feature ads of various effectiveness. Not all ads are created equal. And this is to be expected as animal protection organizations have disparate resources to be allocated for staff, research, production, and consultants. To be clear, the purpose of this investigation is not to criticize any particular group’s work but to shed light on what works and what doesn't, based on the existing body of research. In this first blog entry we will turn our attention to companion animals, specifically spay/neuter messaging and advertising.

In 1970 upwards of 20 million cats and dogs were put down annually in the United States, at a time when the country housed an estimated 67 million companion animals.[1] Today there are 135 million dog and cat companion animals and fortunately the number of shelter deaths has dropped precipitously to somewhere between 3 and 4 million. Thus, it’s worth a look at our paid communications in an attempt to find out what has worked for companion animal advocacy so we can continue making progress.

The late, great copywriter, John Caples,[2] pioneered and evangelized a research-based approach to “scientific advertising.” This entails a time-tested, 3-step process for designing ads, neatly summarized by the acronym “A-I-A” or “attention, interest, action”:

  • Step 1: "Capture the prospect's attention. Nothing happens unless something in your ad, your mailing, or your commercial makes the prospect stop long enough to pay attention to what you say next."
  • Step 2: "Maintain the prospect's interest. Keep the ad, mailing or commercial focused on the prospect, on what he or she will get out of using your product or service."
  • Step 3: "Move the prospect to favorable action. Unless enough 'prospects' are transformed into 'customers,' your ad has failed, no matter how creative. That's why you don't stop with A/I/A (Attention / Interest / Action), but continue right on with testing."

The evolution of market research, including quantitative (polls, surveys) and qualitative methods (focus groups, interviews etc.), has matured to a point where it is possible to evaluate the potency of an ad, including non-commercial appeals for issue advocacy. In other words, we have metrics for measuring ad recall, conversions/persuasion, and a host of other direct response factors. So let’s look at 5 different spay/neuter ads and draw some lessons for effective companion animal advocacy.

Ad #1: Pile -- The Humane Society of the United States


This spay/neuter ad was produced by the Humane Society of the United States. Strategically, this piece hits the right note in leading with euthanasia as its message under the headline: “When you let your pet bring unwanted animals into the world guess who pays.” Recent studies demonstrate the importance of directly tying spay/neuter appeals to animal euthanasia; this angle consistently outperforms all other messages including convenience, unwanted litters, health of the pet, and even low-cost arguments.[3]

Market research of pet owners who do not alter their animals reveals many of these targets are indeed concerned about euthanasia rates - they just don’t feel they are personally causing the problem. As per the findings of one HSUS focus group in the Gulf Coast, "People connect emotionally to the problem, but do no think they are contributing to the problem."[4] So it’s not a problem of issue awareness; it’s a problem of issue personalization and responsibility. Hence, HSUS’s headline wisely addresses the reader in the second person possessive (“your”) to hammer home the consequences of not spaying and neutering.

The psychology of denial is complex but critical to virtually all issues of animal abuse. For example, in a 2004 study of fur wearers, women criticized unethical sourcing from cruel traps, but refused to believe they could be wearing such clothing, preferring to believe their fur originated on farms.[5] For a comprehensive analysis of denial as it affects animal advocacy, check out Carol Glasser’s recent series on the subject.

HSUS’s “Pile” ad also features the most graphic image in our analysis. The photo of a carcass pile captures the reader’s attention, as per Caples’ first principle of effective advertising. Meanwhile, the headline and “story power” created by juxtaposing an inquisitive-looking, healthy dog against this backdrop, sustains the reader’s interest with unyielding focus on the target audience (i.e. “your pet”). And it strikes an effective balance in not crossing that critical, but fine line between shock and repulsion. Finally, it closes with a simple, but unmistakable call-to-action: spay or neuter your pet. Spay/neuter advocacy entails serious issues and market research indicates pet owners want to see corresponding advertising presented in a serious and professional manner.[6]On this point, HSUS’s “Pile” strikes the right tone.

Ad #2: SNIP - Kentucky Humane Society


“SNIP” from the Kentucky Humane Society was selected for exactly the opposite reason: it’s humorous tone. The headline reads: “You’re going to cut off my what?” Humor can be a very effective tool in advocacy communications but it’s a difficult proposition in spay/neuter messaging. Ultimately, this is where “SNIP” falls short.

As the HSUS’s Gulf Coast spay/neuter research report states, “cute” messaging may help acquire volunteers or donors but doesn't adequately persuade the target audience. In other words, these pet owners see spay/neuter as a serious issue even if they aren't altering their animals. In the focus group report, participants who did not alter their pets consistently repeated this point[7]:

"It's very cute, but not convincing" -- Shreveport, does not spay or neuter.

"It's supposed to be a serious decision that you're making. That's too silly." -- Jackson, does not spay or neuter."

Thus, we have no choice but to conclude “SNIP” takes the issue too lightly to form an effective print ad. The headline doesn’t telegraph the message that not spaying/neutering leads to euthanasia; on the contrary it leads with a joke. This is a mistake. As the late, great ad-man David Ogilvy has pointed out: “Blind headlines that don't say what the product will do for you are 20% below average in recall.”[8]

There are also issues with the photo itself. Adoption research shows that large black dogs (and for that matter, black cats) are the least likely candidates to be adopted and thus make for questionable models.[9] Furthermore, market research demonstrates that the concept of “speaking for an animal” - actually putting words in an animal’s mouth - is a questionable approach.

Fortunately, this piece has several underused assets, most notably its sponsor’s name. Multiple studies have shown that the “Humane Society” name, whether it’s HSUS or a local neighborhood shelter, is a very strong brand. As we’ve pointed out before, all ads are facing an uphill battle in fighting for credibility. The Humane Society brand can help build trust between an ad and an audience to overcome the credibility barrier. As one New Orleans resident who doesn't spay/neuter said: "They're not doing it to make money. They're doing it for the right reasons."[10]

Ad #3: Abstinence Education - Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals


Ogilvy’s brother once asked the editor of London’s Daily Mirror about the type of photos that are most interesting to readers. The editor famously replied: "Babies with an 'eart-throb, animals with an 'eart-throb, and what you might call sex."[11] Thus, our third piece “Abstinence Education,” from the Los Angeles SPCA begins with a seemingly promising start: cute animals, a controversial hook, and a strong brand. However, this ad falls short because these disparate elements accidentally project the opposite of the intended message, in other words, that new litters of baby animals are a good thing!

Here’s how “Abstinence Education” provokes this undesired response. Our audience is supposed to understand that it’s a fundamentally bad thing for a companion animal to bring a litter into the world. But when asked to respond to similar ads during the HSUS Gulf Coast study, it turned out that animals who are too good looking also worked against the message. In testing, respondents questioned why one would get such beautiful animals fixed. “Abstinence Education,” which directly highlights the beautiful byproduct of not fixing your pets, amplifies this line of thinking. Consider:

"I know the point is they're trying to say, look, this dog is going to father a whole bunch of babies that aren't wanted. But that's not what I see. I see, you are just as cute as you can be." -- Shreveport, does not spay/neuter

Research in the field of animal protection has consistently demonstrated that we are not our target audience. We’ve seen this time and time again in evaluating fur messaging, adoption campaigns, and spay/neuter messaging. Negative comments from companion animal owners show that what appeals to animal advocates doesn’t always appeal to animal owners who opt not to spay or neuter.

This ad from SPCA LA is also unique in our analysis in so far as it is framed around an analogy. The headline reads: “Abstinence Doesn’t Work For Your Pet Either.” Whether or not abstinence education works is irrelevant; the controversial nature of the claim isn’t the issue. What’s problematic here is that readers have a history of missing the point in headlines built around analogies. Research from Gallup has shown that analogies in print headlines are “widely misunderstood.”[12] Thus, some target readers likely missed the premise of the ad (i.e. that abstinence education is ineffective in humans) or didn’t understand the relationship between human abstinence and the spay/neuter message.

Ad #4: Too Much -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals


The fourth ad in our analysis is from PETA and was selected because it features a celebrity spokesperson. It also features the most graphic sexual content of any ad in the series. We’ve amassed a wealth of data on the use of celebrities in advertisements for animal protection issues and could author an entire blog series on the subject. But for the purposes of this analysis, we’ll stick to the facts gleaned from companion animal research and data directly relevant to the print ad itself.

Not surprisingly, advertising research has shown that the use of characters known to people who see television commercials can boost recall of print ads.[13] This is a potential plus for PETA. But what we don’t know is how many readers recognize Sasha Grey. And for those of you who don’t know who she is, Ms. Grey is an adult film star who presumably knows something about having “too much sex.” It’s a very clever hook - but does it work? Once again, let’s turn to the research.

Perhaps the two biggest challenges facing an advertiser is the one-two punch of cutting through the clutter (remember Caples’ first principle?) while at the same time remaining credible. It’s a safe assumption that PETA’s ad would get noticed. But to qualify as an effective ad it must also be a believable appeal. Widely used in direct response campaigns, testimonials are particularly powerful tools for building credibility in advertising.[14] Sasha Grey may be perceived as an authority on sex, and her words may even be trustworthy, but is she an appropriate messenger for spay/neuter advocacy?

Focus group research, across the board, reveals major skepticism toward celebrity appeals. Respondents routinely question the featured celebrity’s motivation (is she getting paid? is he doing this as a PR stunt? is she trying to rehabilitate her image? etc.). As one respondent in HSUS’ Gulf Coast study exclaimed:

"I'm not going to buy something or do something or have something done because of Carrie Underwood or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or whomever says that is the thing to do. My first thing is, what do they specifically know about the subject matter?" - Shreveport, doesn't spay or neuter[15]

The best celebrity spokespeople, who possess the ability to leverage their credibility for animals, usually have a long, visible track record with the issue (e.g. Bob Barker, Wendie Malick, Bridget Bardot etc.). Quantitative and qualitative responses from the field indicate that the most credible spokespeople are actually veterinarians, animal control officers, and animal protection leaders - not celebrities.[16] However, the tradeoff in using these more trustworthy, non-public figures is their inability to instantly capture attention. And that’s the ultimate challenge for advertisers: how to get noticed while remaining believable.

PETA’s headline - while very clever - is also ambiguous. Advertising research shows that double entendres are counter-productive in so far as they often confuse people.[17] The link between human sexuality and altering pets is tenuous, at best, while the link to euthanasia (our most effective message) is nonexistent in this ad. Not surprisingly, on first pass, this ad could easily be mistaken for an AIDS appeal or possibly a pro-abstinence piece! And where is the support for the call-to-action? Should people email PETA for more information? Call their local shelter? It's unclear. In “Caples-speak,” the animal owners have not been moved to favorable action.

Finally, we have also seen how our target audience rejects spay/neuter appeals that don’t strike a serious tone; the public treats this topic seriously even if it doesn’t always do the right thing on behalf of the animals. So while PETA’s ad takes first-prize for production value, we question its effectiveness in promoting behavior change.

Ad #5: 73,000 -- The Humane Society of the United States


The fifth and final piece (and second from The HSUS in this series) is a solid, research-based advertisement. The culmination of a long-term quantitative and qualitative study, HSUS’s ad draws on a body of research of what works and what doesn’t in promoting spay/neuter activity.

Technically, this ad does virtually everything right with its headline. It’s common knowledge in marketing and research circles that the only information that persuades people is new information, or old information in different packaging. Headlines that contain such newsworthy information are “sure fire” so an advertiser should never bury such valuable data.[18] Ever wonder why successful direct response marketers use such long, fact-based copy in their appeals? As Dr. Charles Edwards quipped after studying the results of retail advertising, “the more facts you tell, the more you sell."[19] This applies equally to advertising on behalf of good causes.

Specifics also trump generalities in headlines and this ad puts very specific data front and center: “In Mississippi, 109,000 Homeless Pets Enter Shelters Each Year. 73,000 Are Put Down.” Notice the simple, more easily recognizable language “put down” as opposed to “euthanize.” This ad is also geotargeted and appropriately mentions local news in its headline; dog and cat owners are largely interested in how spay/neuter affects them where they reside. As respondents in the Gulf Coast focus groups expressed: "I would like to see Louisiana at the front of this statement. That would get people's attention because you're talking about our state, not just in general. Things are different here than other places."[20]

Strategically, HSUS’ appeal correctly leads with the euthanasia message. It also personalizes the message in directly linking euthanasia to the reader’s potential litter. This approach worked in field testing:

"It probably makes you think should I have my dog neutered or spayed? Is my dog under control? What does my dog do when I'm not watching him?"

"So you think well my dog had puppies, so I gave them away, I wonder where they went, did they have to go to a home to get euthanized.[21]

Finally, HSUS takes the call-to-action in this ad to a new level. Besides instructing the reader to “spay or neuter your pet,” it provides a URL, phone number, and even instructions to “save” the number to your cell!

The biggest question about this ad is the total lack of imagery. As we’ve seen, appropriate photography can form the cornerstone of a print appeal, especially in capturing and maintaining a reader’s attention. Only further testing can determine the relative strength of this approach vs. the traditional, graphic-centric appeal.


We hope this first installment of our advertising autopsy series has been helpful. Once again, our point is not to criticize (or promote) any one group’s work on behalf of companion animals. Our objective is to explore the strengths and weaknesses of various ads while drawing lessons from the existing research to improve our collective work on behalf of spay/neuter campaigns. In our next entry, I will examine a series of ads from anti-vivisection campaigns.



  1. Scheer, Roddy & Doug Moss, “The Fix Is In,” Scientific American, 9/14/2011.
  2. John Caples, Tested Advertising Methods, Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 1997 (ix - x).
  3. Messaging Spay/Neuter: Lessons from the Gulf Coast Spay/Neuter Campaign -- March 2009
  4. ibid.
  5. Fund For Animals Anti-fur Focus Group
  6. Messaging Spay/Neuter, March 2009
  7. ibid.
  8. David Ogilvy, Ogilvy On Advertising, New York: Vintage Books. 1983. pg.74
  9. The Plight of “Big Black Dogs” in American Animal Shelters: Color-Based Canine Discrimination
  10. Messaging Spay/Neuter -- March 2009
  11. Ogilvy, pg.83
  12. Ogilvy, pg.82
  13. ibid., pg.78
  14. ibid., pg.83
  15. Messaging Spay/Neuter, March 2009
  16. ibid.
  17. Ogilvy, pg.74
  18. ibid., pg.71
  19. ibid., pg.83
  20. Messaging Spay/Neuter, March 2009
  21. ibid.


Anthony is a co-founding Director of HRC and a Vice President at Campaign Solutions/ Connell Donatelli, where he specializes in online fundraising and advertising for public affairs campaigns, ballot initiatives, and non-profit organizations. In 2010, he was honored by Campaigns & Elections Magazine as a “Rising Star of Politics.” Some of his animal protection clients include the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, and the Fund for Animals. In 2007, he served as Executive Director of the American Association of Political Consultants. He holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania (2000) and an M.A. from the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, with concentrations in corporate public affairs and campaign management (2005).

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