HSUS’s Mike Markarian On Research And The “Shelter Pet Project”
I thought you might enjoy this interview that Faunalytic’s Anthony Bellotti recently conducted with Mike Markarian, Executive Vice President of the Humane Society of the U.S. Mike discusses the new Shelter Pet Project launched with Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council, focusing on how research played an essential role in developing the project.
Interview with HSUS’s Mike Markarian — October 26, 2009
Please provide an example of how you are currently integrating research into your campaigns/programs.
We recently launched a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to drive people to low-cost spay and neuter services for pets in Louisiana and Mississippi. We wanted to determine what messages would work, and we based our advertising campaign around those themes. We found that people did not respond to cute, cartoonish images of animals, and did not respond to messages about spaying and neutering being better for their pets’ health. They were only motivated to have their pets sterilized when they learned that their own pet not being spayed or neutered was directly related to the euthanasia of other pets at their local animal shelters.
Our ads use specific euthanasia statistics for Louisiana and Mississippi, so the issue is localized. People did not respond to words like “euthanasia” or “killed” but were motivated by language such as “put down” or “put to sleep.” We also found that talking about euthanasia did not paint a negative picture of animal shelters, and people did not blame the shelters for euthanizing animals.
This research challenged longstanding assumptions in the animal welfare movement: Many groups have been promoting spay/neuter with the wrong images, the wrong language, and the wrong messaging for a long time. For years, we’ve been using cartoon dog and cat characters, and talking about reducing ovarian cancer, which just hasn’t worked. And many groups have been afraid to talk about euthanasia because they felt it would demonize shelter workers. We found that an absolutely opposite approach was what worked, and a different formula was needed in order to drive behavior change.
Tell us a little about how you specifically used research for Shelter Pet Project w/ the Ad Council.
We surveyed the existing data on pet ownership and conducted additional polling and focus groups to determine attitudes and behaviors toward shelter pet adoption. We found that only about 20% of pet owners procure their animals from shelters, and 80% get them from other sources (breeders, pet stores, friend/neighbor, etc.). Many people who are looking to get a pet in the next year are considered “swing voters”—they don’t yet know where they’re going to go to obtain the animal and don’t have a strong preference. If we can influence just a small percentage of those “swing voters” and steer them toward the animal shelters, we can end euthanasia of healthy and treatable pets in this country.
We also found that the main barrier to shelter adoption is that people have a misperception of shelter animals as “defective” or “bad” pets. They assume the pets were relinquished to the shelters because they had behavioral problems and they assume pets from other sources are higher quality. We designed our public service advertising campaign specifically to address that issue, and inform people that pets usually end up at shelters through no fault of their own (because of a family’s divorce, financial trouble, allergies, etc.) and that shelter pets are good pets. By breaking down the main barrier to shelter pet adoption, we will drive more swing voters to the shelters as their first choice.
For more information on the research findings I suggest reading the article from Animal Sheltering magazine and viewing the PowerPoint presentation.
Please provide an example on how research changed one of your campaigns. How did it serve as a turning point?
During our campaign last year to pass Proposition 2 in California to combat factory farming practices, we had produced several TV ads that were ready to begin airing in the weeks leading up to the vote. We tested the ads in focus groups in Riverside and San Diego, and the feedback from voters completely changed our advertising strategy and sent us back to production. We found that voters didn’t react to clever/humorous ads, and just wanted to know the facts about what the problem is, what the measure does, and who supports it.
People were sick of all the other political ads they had been seeing on TV and just wanted something straightforward. They needed to see footage of animals on factory farms, and hear from credible sources like veterinarians and The Humane Society of the United States. The new ads that we produced and ran showed footage of factory farms, featured veterinarians and Wayne Pacelle of HSUS as the spokespersons, and highlighted our most credible endorsements. It was a winning strategy, and the focus groups were the turning point for the campaign.
What’s your approach to research for ballot initiatives?
Before launching any statewide measure, we conduct polling and focus groups of voters to determine whether a measure is politically feasible and whether there is a high enough threshold of voter support. We have just recently determined strong support among Ohio voters for a measure to phase out extreme confinement of animals on factory farms, and among Missouri voters for a measure to stop abuses at large-scale puppy mills, so we are now launching efforts in both of those states for the November 2010 election.
The research informs every aspect of the campaign, including the drafting of the language for the measure, the best messages and messengers to use, and the paid advertising. As we get closer to election day, we also conduct daily tracking polls so we can see which of our ads are working, which regions/demographics need to be adjusted in our advertising buy, etc.
Can you tell us about your approach to research for message development?
Like a political campaign, we want all of our spokespersons to be on message and to always hit the most important or most persuasive arguments. Once we find the best messages through polling and focus groups, we train our professional and volunteer spokespersons on message discipline.
What would you say about the importance of research for the animal advocacy movement? Is it becoming more or less important?
It’s becoming more important as the animal protection movement becomes more sophisticated and more mainstream. If we’re going to spend millions of dollars on a marketing campaign or ballot initiative, we need to make that money go further by hitting the right messages. The money is wasted if we are saying the wrong things. Fortunately, Faunalytics is a professional organization that can help us be as persuasive and effective as possible on behalf of animals, and can help our movement evolve into a powerful force for policy change.