In celebration of this year’s zodiac calendar and the upcoming Year of the Dog, we look into the use and treatment of household pets and other animals in China’s production industry.
The value of pets is rising in middle class Chinese families. Advertisers are paying attention to this cultural shift. How these animals are treated during the production process is another issue.
Who let the dogs out?
Brown haired poodles with pink-lace tutus on the sidewalk highlight the resurgence of pets in modern China. Pet-keeping disappeared under Mao Zedong’s rule from 1957-1967 due to the economic impracticality but today the popularity of pets has come back in a hurry as China opens up economically.
In China’s wealthier cities some joke dogs and cats have taken the place of children under China’s once strictly enforced one child policy. Pet extravagance is already well documented in the US where companies are pinching the pockets of pet owners by marketing specialty craft beer for dogs and now China is catching up fast as pet owners in Shanghai have the option to cure their pets’ ailments with acupuncture specifically catered to their furry darlings.
Pet Fair Asia, hosted in China, is already in its 20th year. The estimated size of the pet food market in China was already 1.37 billion USD in 2015 (petfoodindustry.com). Pets are undoubtedly regaining popularity in middle and upper Chinese society. It’s not surprising then to see advertisers picking up on this trend and featuring cats, dogs, and other animals more prominently to win over the hearts and minds of consumers.
How to procure a pet
Creatives in China may be more eager to utilize animals in marketing tactics, however, the process of finding and training an animal on set is still a huge obstacle for producers. Singaporean native Lorna Chua, founder of a boutique China production company, Fat Fat Cat, laughed that she sometimes turns away storyboards with animals because it can be difficult in China to safely and easily procure an animal for a spot.
创意广告公司一片热忱，想要把宠物融入市场营销战略，但是要想找到训练有素的宠物，能上得了片场，还是很大的挑战。Lorna Chua来自新加坡，是一家技艺精湛的中国制作公司Fat Fat Cat的创始人，有时候看到广告创意想找宠物出演时，她不得拒绝这样的做法，因为在中国找宠物出演广告，从安全角度和便利角度来讲还是很有难度的。
New Life Films Senior Producer Mao Jie Bing has shot with all sorts of animals in China from alpacas and elephants to household dogs and cats. Working with an animal can make a shoot more complicated he admitted, but also shared that the “lack of a formal system” is uniquely challenging when working with animals in China. If a storyboard calls for a lion, dog, or goldfish there is not a directory or list of agencies that producers can call on to assist in this process of finding and training the animal on set.
New Life Films高级制片人Mao Jie Bing就在中国拍过各种各样的宠物广告，包括羊驼、大象、小猫小狗。他坦言，广告拍摄动物确实很复杂，但是中国特有的挑战其实是中国“缺乏正规的体系”。如果广告故事板有狮子、小狗、金鱼，他们找不到哪家广告公司能提供协助，帮助制片人找到合适的动物，能够在片场训练动物。
This humorous spot featuring a pet duck Afa was produced in 2014 by New Life Films for a Tencent QQ product called Caibei | 这部以小鸭子为主角的搞笑广告由New Life Films于2014年为腾讯QQ彩贝打造
In fact, even though animals are popping up more in storyboards, a Malaysian freelance producer based in Shanghai shared from her experience, because there is no formal system, spots with animals are more often shot outside of China. To find exotic animals for a shoot in China a producer from Gwantsi said they resort to the Circus, the Shanghai Zoo or Wild Life Park on the outskirts of Shanghai.
For cats or dogs, which are needed more frequently, producers generally would have a special contact or connection to a dog training school. Mao Jie Bing from New Life Films shared one of his contacts is a retired police officer who owns several well trained dogs. This man also acts as the trainer on set, which takes away some of the headache from the production team. A side effect of a booming pet industry means that individual pet owners are also promoting their pets on social media channels and this becomes another way for producers to find well-trained, famous dogs and cats.
猫狗的出镜率更为频繁，制片人往往会找到宠物训练机构的人。来自New Life Films的Mao Jie Bing推荐了这么一个人，此人是一名退休警察，有好几只训练有素的狗狗。同时，他也会来到片场，训练其他的狗狗，这样也给制作团队省去不少麻烦。另外，随着宠物市场不断壮大，很多宠物主人也都在社交媒体平台上贴出自己的小宠物照片，这样也可以帮助制片人找到一些训练有素、有名气的猫猫狗狗。
Dog training centers are the most reliable source but the producers are limited to the particular breeds available at the training center at the time of their request. A certain level of skill along with a trainer that accompanies and trains the dog before and on set is at least a guarantee with this option.
Dogs are front and center in this ad for VW produced last year by Possible Films | 大众汽车广告以狗狗和主角，由Possible Films于去年打造
Several producers shared the lack of a formal system does make it more expensive to shoot with exotic animals or even household pets. There are no standard prices or respect given to the animals and this makes each time shooting with an animal a bit of a wild ride in China.
In the US, compared to China, there is more of a tried and true method established for agencies and producers to find animals and trainers for a shoot. There are around 50 animal agencies across the country, with most clustered either near L.A. or New York City to meet the industry demands of Hollywood and Broadway, respectively. It would be unheard of to go to the local zoo or simply call a friend with a well trained cat. The animals used on set or the stage generally belong to animal rep agencies.
Bill Berloni, who founded his own rep agency, Theatrical Animals, has been an animal trainer and animal behavioralist for over 40 years in New York. He got his start when he was tasked with finding and training the famous dog who starred as Sandy in the hit Broadway musical Annie. The agency’s services include hiring an animal with a trainer from anything to horses, chickens, and cows to iguanas, butterflies and cockroaches. He has eight handlers who work for him and one assistant that helps with the training at home before the animal is called on set. His trainers are people who “love animals and have no previous training experience so [he] can train them in [his] method and not have to undo other methods”.
Bill Berloni成立了自己的动物经济公司，名叫Theatrical Animals，40多年来，在纽约，他一直担任动物训练师，同时也是一位动物行为主义者。最初走上这条路，是因为他曾接到了一个任务，要为70年代百老汇热映音乐剧《孤女安妮》找到一只小狗扮演沙子Sandy，因此他训练出了一只非常著名的小狗。该公司的服务就是寻找动物和动物训练师，比如马、鸡、牛，甚至还有鬣鳞蜥、蝴蝶和蟑螂。他的团队共有8名训练师，还有一个助理，帮助他在家训练即将进入片场的动物。他的培训师都是那些“热爱动物，但是却没有驯兽经验的人，所以他可以用自己的方法培训这些驯兽师，这样就不会有其他方法的干扰”。
Even though pets are held in high esteem in American society, Berloni’s experience has shown him that animals, even man’s best friend dogs, are not treated with the proper respect they deserve on set in the US. During a shoot he often feels “pets are put in situations that babies, children, or adult actors would not be expected to perform”.
Beloved at home or not, the treatment of animals on film sets is a concern the advertising industry at large should take more seriously. “People treat animals badly all around the world” Berloni bemoans. This doesn’t excuse China’s current system or lack of animal protection laws. In film productions in the US, American Humane Society representatives are sometimes hired to give a stamp of approval that the animals hired are treated fairly on set. And while this is more regularly done by large brands to protect themselves against lawsuits, to date the practice is unheard of in China.
Producers all over the world are always looking for ways to cut costs, and Berloni is witness to the fact that animals and their trainers receive a much smaller pay check than their human sidekicks. “There is no union for animal trainers or formal contracts unless it’s a huge Hollywood-type production” Berloni continues. He aptly points out that the dog trainer is listed below the caterer on the credits list.
Mafeng Wo (蚂蜂窝) gives human personalities and traits to dogs in this spot, adding a little light-heartedness to otherwise obnoxious human characteristics | 蚂蜂窝给狗狗赋予了人的性格特征，让人的性格不再那么令人讨厌，反而博人一笑
Evolution or devolution?
As China’s long history of pet-keeping continues to resurface it’s only natural to see the use of pets and animals in Chinese advertising increase.
A peek back at animal treatment in advertising, movies, and tv shows in the US reveal a less formal system only a couple decades ago. China itself is certainly on the road to a more organized method for securing and training animals for film production. There is no guarantee this will lead to more animal protection laws or proper treatment of animals on set, however.
The value of animals in a society doesn’t necessarily equate to proper treatment in production. It’s up to diligent producers and the advertising industry at large to not view animals as a prop or a way to reduce their budget but as an opportunity to put animals on equal footing.