By Ed Brennen
Lei Jia, an assistant professor of marketing in the Manning School of Business, considers himself a “cat person.” He doesn’t currently own one, but he grew up with several felines and has always preferred them to dogs.
Four years ago, when Jia was a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, he was having a conversation with two colleagues — both of whom consider themselves pet lovers — about the popularity of pet ownership in the United States. Around 70% of U.S. households own a pet, and during the pandemic, an estimated one in five homes added a dog or cat.
“We started thinking about how our behaviors could be influenced by pets,” Jia recalls. “People consider pets, especially dogs and cats, as friends or family members. Because dogs and cats are social animals, our behaviors could be influenced by them. We wanted to figure out how pets may have an impact on consumers’ judgment and decision-making in a marketing context.”
Jia and his two colleagues — Xiaojing Yang, an associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina, and Yuwei Jiang, a professor of marketing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University — recently published their research findings in the Journal of Marketing.
In their article, “The Pet Exposure Effect: Exploring the Differential Impact of Dogs Versus Cats on Consumer Mindsets,” they examine how exposure to dogs — either through ownership or just by seeing them in ads — tends to make people more eager and prone to take risks in their decision-making (what the researchers call “promotion focused”). Conversely, people’s experiences with cats can prompt them to be more cautious and risk-averse (“prevention focused”).
During the course of their research, which included 12 separate studies, Jia and his co-authors also learned that U.S. states with a higher percentage of dog ownership have higher per-capita COVID-19 transmission rates. And, to Jia’s surprise, they found that political ideology correlates with people’s pet preferences.
“Red states that support Republican ideologies have relatively more dog owners, and blue states, which are more Democratic, have more cat owners,” he said.
Jia, who joined the Manning School faculty during the pandemic and teaches courses in sales and customer relations, recently took time to discuss the research.
Q: Your article talks about how “pet stereotypicality” — their expected temperaments and behaviors — plays a key role in the impact on consumers. What are the biggest stereotypes of dogs and cats?
A: In general, dogs are eager, whereas cats are cautious. Dogs approach unfamiliar people and objects with eagerness and cope better with and adapt quicker to changes in the physical and social environment. Cats are the opposite: They approach unfamiliar people and objects with vigilance and are concerned with the consistency and stability of the physical and social environment.
Q: Can you give an example of one of your studies?
A: In one study, we asked people to recall a past interaction they had either with a dog or cat. We then gave them a financial decision-making task: an imaginary $2,000 to invest in stocks or mutual funds. We found that individuals who recalled interacting with a dog were more likely to pick stocks — a riskier option — than those who recalled a cat. And they allocated more money to the stock option than those who recalled a cat. This basically supported our hypothesis that consumers’ experience with a pet corresponds with being eager or cautious.
Q: What about people who own both a dog and a cat?
A: We don’t know exactly how people’s experiences with both a dog and a cat in a given situation would influence their subsequent decision-making. Future research may answer this question.
Q: How did the COVID-19 angle come about in your research?
A: When the first round of peer review came back, it was just before COVID-19 got really bad. We wondered whether COVID-19 transmission rates could be correlated with pet ownership in different states. COVID-19 transmission rates could be a proxy to measure people’s decision-making, either being eager or cautious. For individuals who tend to be cautious in decision-making, they may behave extra carefully, like practicing social distancing and wearing face masks. For individuals who are more eager, they are more willing to dine in restaurants and let their guard down when following social distancing. The implication is that policymakers in states with more dog owners could design more customized educational programs and materials related to the diseases to make people more alert and cautious. This could go beyond just COVID-19; it could be applied to other infectious diseases, as well.
Q: How can marketers use your findings about the pet exposure effect?
A: Our findings offer important insights into how to incorporate pets into marketing communications. One factor to consider is the type of products being advertised. For products or services mainly perceived as promotion-focused — sports cars, for example — featuring dogs in the ad is likely to enhance the ad’s persuasiveness. For products that are more prevention-focused, such as insurance, featuring cats may increase the ad’s appeal. A caveat is that marketers should ensure that stereotypical pet temperaments are made salient in the message — dogs being eager and cats being cautious. Otherwise, the intended effects of featuring pets in the ad may not be achieved.