To say it’s a dog’s life once described a dreary, harsh and probably impoverished condition. Nowadays we would probably use the term “dog’s life” to symbolize living in the lap(dog) of luxury. Spending on dogs and other pets has tripled over the past 20 years. Stores for training, feeding and grooming dogs seem to be proliferating at a pandemic rate.
Dogs now serve as a major motif in television commercials for virtually every product, including beer, snack foods, automobiles and clothing. In these television spots, dogs can be symbols of family, of loyalty to the pack (if not to a spouse), of good-naturedness, of goofiness, and even of freedom.
But it is the image of a mindlessly happy slave blindly following orders to which Travelers Insurance wants us to aspire in its new commercial for auto and other insurance. Among the traditional values associated with dogs, the Travelers ad favors blind obedience and easy trainability.
The commercial focuses exclusively on a dog that does everything it’s supposed to do, and more. The visual narration unfolds in 9 vignettes of the same “good dog” being good. Since it’s a commercial for auto insurance, it naturally takes place in a car-dependent suburban setting. Here are the 9 vignettes:
- The dog covers a hole in which it has probably buried a bone.
- It pulls the sprinkler to the middle of the yard with its teeth.
- It wipes its front paws on a floor mat before entering the house.
- Its maw grabs a water bottle that its master has left on a table and places it in a trash bin.
- It drops a set of car keys from its teeth into the key tray by the door.
- It looks both ways before crossing the sidewalk, thereby avoiding a collision with a woman pushing a baby carriage.
- It tries to clean up spilt milk by dredging a cloth through the white puddle with its teeth.
- It puts its empty food bowl in the open dishwasher.
- It takes a bag of groceries in its teeth from the back of a mini-van and carries it inside the house.
The narration subtly twists each of these vignettes into a corresponding action that a human could, and should, take to be a better driver or get a better rate on car (and home) insurance. The phrases include, “safe driver,” “loyal driver,” “accident forgiveness,” “rewarded for good behavior,” “recognized for doing the right thing, ” “the good things you do, but maybe nobody notices,” and my favorite, “Travelers wants you to be good.”
The background music is a Speakeasy 20’s version of a song that goes “I’ve been good to you, yes I’ve been good….”
It made me want to sit up…
…and fetch a newspaper or bring a leash in my teeth to some human in hopes of getting a crunchy little ball of processed meat and meal, or perhaps a scratch behind the ear.
No one can miss the metaphor: the dog is us, at least a better version of us which is rewarded for its goodness by lower automobile and home insurance rates. The total identification between the dog and the ideal of human behavior plays out in the call to action: to visit the goodbehavior.com website.
It’s one thing to say, “She has an elephant’s memory” or “He’s crazy like a fox,” but the Travelers “good dog” ad, which is part of a whole series of ads in which dogs symbolize humans, takes the analogy beyond the comparison of a single trait to an all-encompassing idealization of humans mindlessly doing the right thing.
That right thing is defined by Travelers not only as a set of driving behaviors, but a set of consumer behaviors as well: How else do we explain the presence of loyalty as one of the “good boy” behaviors proposed in the commercial, when loyalty has nothing to do with safe driving? Product loyalty is, after all, the holy grail of marketers. A more encompassing view of what constitutes a “good boy” imbues the imagery, which resides in a world of suburban consumerism, replete with ranch-style home, gas-guzzling automobile, dish washer, plastic water bottle and other disposable paraphernalia of suburban excess. To Travelers, to be a “good boy” requires that one not only drive safely, but to obey all the rules for good consumerism like customer loyalty and mindless acquisition. In another context, “the good dog” might morph to something savage such as the “good Nazi” or “good Soviet,” but Travelers has something a little less overtly violent in mind: just be a happy idiot.