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Why Are There So Many Animals in Fashion Ads?

Animals have been used in fashion ads since at least the 1800s. Why are they so prevalent? And should they be?

Fashion is the new barnyard.

Flip through any of this year’s fashion magazines and you’ll see an assortment of animals. There’s a Mulberry ad, complete with a white owl perched on Cara Delevigne's gloved hand. Hunter has its models wearing an assortment of primary-colored raingear carrying a lamb, a goose and a fox. Coach is selling its Ranger Crossbody purse avec a black Labrador puppy. Another Mulberry ad (gorgeous by the way) has four dogs at a dining table set for tea.

And of course, there’s that beautiful, exotic cat staring longingly at a ring in Cartier’s Panthère de Cartier collection.

The truth is, animals have been a part of fashion ads and editorial shoots for decades -- even if one might be inclined to only remember the more recent shots -- like a nude Julianne Moore nuzzling two baby lion cubs for Bulgari. Or the Harper’s Bazaar spread with Kate Upton carrying a monkey (that is wearing a leopard-patterned diaper, FYI).

Joshua Katcher — editor of the ethical blog The Discerning Brute, author of the forthcoming book Fashion and Animals and a professor of fashion at Parsons — says animals have been in fashion spreads since at least the 1800s.

“There are a few things that humans are perpetually fascinated with,” Katcher says. “Sex, death, the occult -- and animals. When you put animals in fashion media, there will be a primal part of anyone’s brain activated.” He says that the fashion world -- savvy wonder that it is -- knows this is the case: “Fashion media is well funded and well researched. It isn’t putting stuff out for just for any old reason. Animals always work.”

Debra Merskin is a professor of journalism and communications at the University of Oregon and author of Sexing the Media. She also once worked in advertising. The use of animals, Merskin says, is everywhere. “Animals are deeply ingrained in our common mythology. Automobile companies will use horses in ads because we equate strong things with “horsepower.” Wolves are used in Volvo ads to represent a ‘threat.’” Although the world has changed, Merskin says, the symbolic meaning of animals has remained the same.

Merskin notes that animals are often used in women’s fashion ads and especially prevalent in luxury fashion, including jewelry, handbags, scarves and shoes. “The greatest irony,” she notes, “is when there’s an animal next to a fur product. That’s a real disconnect.”

Katcher, in fact, says that this disconnect is one of the more outstanding features he has come across in the research for his book. “It’s really blatant …where we separate animals that we love from the animals that we wear. I think it presents a lot of philosophical and cultural problems because it is so irrational.”

Katcher points to an advertisement at the turn of the 20th century which essentially said: If you bring in your dead dog, we will turn it into a scarf for you (a set of scarves cost $11). “As science has progressed and as we’ve learned more and more about animals having inner lives, our disconnect grows.” In the past, Katcher explains, you would see a fox stole with the head attached or the leg dangling. “Today, the circumstances are different. We want to pretend our textiles are separate from the animals that they come from.”

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But even if animals are the props that easily hook the eye, should they be used in fashion adverts to begin with? Does an elephant really have to be in Edun’s laudable clothing campaign (even if the goal is to create conservation awareness)? Moreover, with so many charismatic, wild animals currently under threat, what’s the message fashion is sending to its audience?

Stephen Ross is the director of the Lester Fisher Center for the Study of and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Some of his research includes understanding the public perception of animals -- specifically chimpanzees -- used in the media.

Ross and his colleagues conducted a visitor survey, and the results of his study (published in Science 2008) demonstrated that people didn’t think chimps were endangered like other species of apes. The reason?

“Because they saw them on TV commercials,” says Ross.

Later studies by Ross revealed that animals' proximity to humans played the biggest role in determining whether people thought they were endangered. Basically, when a person was also in the ad, it upped the perception that the animal wasn’t endangered. “This [presence] would apply to a fashion model,” says Ross. “If the reader sees the animal with a model, they would be more likely to think it wasn’t endangered.”

Ross has also compared former chimp performers to other captive chimps, like those you see in TV commercials. He said that the performing chimps suffer “long term deficiencies.” For example, take the act of grooming. Chimpanzee grooming might seem like a kind of silly display of affection to people. But grooming is an absolutely key social behavior that bonds chimps together. And chimps who were used in entertainment simply don’t groom as much as other captive chimps, says Ross.

Currently, Ross is now examining issues of animal welfare in performing chimps “I worry that they are not being properly cared for,” he says. “The trainers often say that they care for the chimpanzees appropriately. But we are learning more about the long-term consequences.” Ross says the lucky chimp performers, when their entertainment careers are deemed over, might end up in an accredited zoo or a sanctuary (Houston Zoo has 10 former performers, he says). But others can be sold as pets or dumped at unaccredited roadside zoos -- where, sadly, they might spend the rest of their lives.

PETA, the fashion world’s nemesis, agrees with this. The organization’s media liaison Jessica Johnson wrote in an email to Fashionista: “Many wild animals used by the entertainment industry—including great apes, elephants, and big cats—typically live in deplorable conditions in animal-training compounds and are routinely beaten or shocked during training sessions. Even the best-known trainers are frequently cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, which establishes only minimal guidelines for animal care.”

According to Johnson, there’s no agency that closely monitors the living conditions or pre-production training sessions for the performing animals.

Katcher says he hopes all of these factors will convince the fashion world to stop using animals as props in their glossy shots. “Science shows that animals have valid perspectives, a will to live and their own perception. Our duty is to recognize that. Unfortunately, in fashion ads, animals just become symbols. They lose all individuality, interests or intelligence. They are simply two dimensional.”

“How can we ever really care about animals,” Katcher says, “if they come off like that?”