Over the past six months, a startling array of campaigns starring furry and not-so-furry creatures has hit our screens. From Cadbury's menagerie depicting "happiness", to the 3 jellyfish and the return of the Wall's sausages dog, the advertising industry's predilection for using weird and wonderful animals has rarely been more in evidence.
Since June, we've also been treated to Camelot's unicorn called Barry; Thomson Directories with its catwoman pursued by a bear; Flat Eric, making a welcome comeback in the Auto Trader campaign, and the Tizer chameleon.
The run-up to Christmas has seen these joined by a swan floating in Vicks Vapobath, some colourful parrots for Virgin Atlantic and a new campaign for Woolworths' puppets, Woolly and Worth.
So what's behind this trend towards anthropomorphism? It it a return to the heydays of the 70s and 80s, when BMP's John Webster was in his prime, turning out furry animal after furry animal: George the Hofmeister bear; the Cresta bear; the Kia-ora crows, and the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster?
"Despite our veneer of sophistication, we are none of us so very far removed from the natural world. So it is hardly surprising that animal imagery has such strong resonance," the psychotherapist Phillip Hodson says. However, while all cultures use animals in advertising, the way and the extent to which we use them is a peculiarly British phenomenon.
The British approach, Hodson says, is characterised by increasing sentimentalisation.
While other cultures see animals as an important part of nature, and of the food chain, we in the UK tend to see them as species of real-life teddy bear, he argues. "There's no doubt that we engage more emotionally with animals in this country," he says. Whether that engagement is entirely honest or psychologically healthy is another matter.
"Take the issue of food," he says. "Most cultures are quite open about the link between animals and what appears on our plates. Show a European a rabbit and they will see lunch. Show an English person a rabbit and they will see a ball of fluffy fun."
However, many in the industry think animals are useful in ads because they can be used to compensate for our limited emotional range as a nation.
"There is something hardwired into our brains when it comes to animal imagery. The cuddly ones in particular tap into one of the few cross-species instincts: the desire to protect young," Lucy Jameson, the head of planning at DDB London, says.
However, it's not just a matter of slapping any old animal in your commercial and waiting for customers to beat a path to your door. "You have to find a reason why they are relevant and ask whether there is a useful parallel with the point you are trying to make," Jameson says.
The successful, long-running campaigns do exactly that. The Andrex puppies functioned as an enduring means of avoiding head-on confrontation with unpalatable truths about the realities of product use, while the PG Tips chimps were supposed to be an engaging way of communicating the sociable nature of tea.
However, there is a growing feeling that advertising's relationship with animal imagery is becoming more exploitative and that animals are increasingly being crowbarred into commercials simply as short-term attention-grabbers.
Matt Shepherd-Smith, the chief operating officer of TBWA\London, argues that the sudden influx of animals in ads is not a good thing. "There has been a splurge of campaigns recently using animals and it's hard to understand why," he says. "They are often animated or computer-generated - badly. Ads used to use animals as long-standing representatives of the brand. Nowadays, they are used more tactically as an executional device that is not motivating or relevant."
Traditionally, good animal-based campaigns have lasted way beyond the natural lifespan of the animals themselves. Think of the 50-year-old Esso tiger, which has been flogging us global warming since long before it became fashionable, and the Andrex puppy, selling bog paper by the blocked drainful for the equivalent of three doggie centuries.
PG Tips may have finally switched its ad strategy from chimps to animated birds, but Benetton has gone the other way, featuring chimpanzees in a print and poster campaign that broke in October. Whether this one will last anywhere near as long as its predecessor remains to be seen.
CADBURY - Happiness
Cadbury has been moaning for years about the price of TV airtime, which has made it devilishly expensive to support a large brand portfolio in the manner to which it has become accustomed. So it was no great surprise when, this autumn, the chocolate giant moved to a new masterbrand approach.
A key aspect of the strategy was to move on from the banal observation that chocolate is delicious. Instead, Cadbury wanted to focus its efforts on communicating the emotional benefit brought by chocolate: happiness.
As ever, the agency needed to create an appropriate, flexible and easily understood metaphor for the subtly different states of happiness induced by different varieties of chocolate bar. Enter the animals.
The happiness of a Cadbury's Flake is represented as a relaxed and sensuous puma. The happiness arising from the new product Snaps is portrayed, yummily enough, by tiara-wearing hyenas, while for Cadbury's Dairy Milk, happiness is a sheep "because it's slightly quirky", the Cadbury European media relations chief, Tony Bilsborough, says.
POST OFFICE - Ants
Earlier this year, the Post Office launched a campaign featuring the endearing antics of a mob of ants. Over the course of six executions, we see them laugh, we see them cry, we hear them call for yet more incredibly complex over-the-counter financial services from the Post Office.
"The inspiration for using ants comes directly from the campaign line 'for the little things that make the big things happen'," the Publicis planner Joan Devereux says.
On one level, they are simply a way of adding warmth and engagement in a sector characterised by borderline-autistic communications that focus obsessively on functional benefits.But the hard-working little beasties also work on a more important metaphorical level. "Creatively, they represent both the consumer - as ants they can say things people couldn't get away with - and also the hard-working, co-operative values espoused by the Post Office and its workers," Devereux adds. When they can spare time from the business of losing your letters and calling wildcat strikes, that is.
FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY - Sid the Slug
Apparently, our diets are not great. Not only are we eating too much fat and sugar, we are also pickling ourselves with massive daily overdoses of salt.
It was time for the FSA to call in the slugs. "This is a deadly serious subject but we wanted to engage people with warmth and humour. As everybody knows salt is deadly to slugs,they were the perfect vehicle for the message," Minnie Moll, HHCL/Red Cell's marketing director, says.
In its wisdom, the agency felt that the sight of real slugs writhing and frothing in agony as their life-pus oozed out on to the pavement would be neither engaging nor humorous. So they created a six-foot-long animatronic slug and named him Sid, after the agency's planning director, Sid McGrath. "We wanted to give him (the slug) a bit of an identity. Love him or loathe him, you can't deny that he's memorable," Moll explains.
WALL'S - Sausages dog
McCann Erickson enraged dog-lovers with its sickening tale of a normal family and a psychotic Jack Russell terrier who keeps on trying to nick the Wall's sausages and ends up squished against a window. What right-thinking person would not be angered at the sight of an animatronic dog being taunted and teased in such a cruel fashion?
What could have led McCann to do such a thing? "People love dogs and dogs love sausages," is the cryptic explanation offered by McCann's dog-torturer-in-chief, Robert Campbell.
In fact, it's just a piece of "brand archaeology", he admits. "It's strange but true that people remember 30-year-old campaigns better than three-year-old campaigns, for the obvious reason that there was only one commercial channel in those days and we all saw pretty much every ad. The Wall's dog was well-recalled and liked, so why would we want to create a new brand icon when we've already got something people remember perfectly well?" he says.
TIZER - Chameleon
Wherein lies the essence of Tizerness? Does it lie in the name, the taste, or is it the red colour of the drink? If it's the latter, what do you do when you introduce new flavours? Convention would have you change the colour of the product for the new variants. However, the brand Gestalt demands that the drink remain red.
In an attempt to square this circle, BDH\TBWA introduced the Tizer chameleon earlier this year. Unlike ordinary chameleons, the Tizer chameleon doesn't change colour to suit its environment.
"There's no deep psychological thinking here, it's just a product metaphor," the planner, Lorna Horton, says. "The ad targets young teenage boys. More literal scripts using people were a bit alienating. Using the chameleon allowed us to represent Tizer and the unco-operative, slightly bolshie attitude of its drinkers."