Toronto Humane Society swaps expectations

Trend alert: The animal shelter is the latest cause to jump on the fake-out train, showing off its new "service" that lets folks trade in puppies when they're no longer wanted.

The Toronto Humane Society hopes to cut down on the number of abandoned pets it takes in every year by faking out those who get pets for the wrong reasons with “Puppyswap.”

A video promoting the “service” starts off innocently enough, with adorable puppies playing with adorable kids. Something becomes clearly amiss, though, when it’s revealed that the pets are chosen based on things like cuteness, likeability and social trends and can be traded in once they no longer meet that criteria and become a bother. Just as the viewer begins to think about what happens to these older, no-longer-trendy dogs, the ad stops with a message saying that the service isn’t real, but pet abandonment is, and is often motivated by the same things that would lead someone to trade in through Puppyswap. The message says that 180,000 pets will be left at shelters in Canada this year, with 40% never leaving.

If someone’s excitement for this kind of service means they cannot wait to try it and skip the end of the video, the website for Puppyswap, which looks like any other startup’s website, triggers a pop-up when someone clicks to sign up that similarly informs visitors that the service isn’t real. It also links to an FAQ page with statistics about pet abandonment in Canada and ways people can support the Toronto Humane Society and other SPCAs.

The campaign was developed by Grip, which approached the Toronto Humane Society with a handful of pitch ideas and did the work pro bono. Randy Stein, creative partner at Grip, says it was a passion project the agency felt strongly about, as several Grip employees bring their dogs to work.

Makyla Deleo, manager of media relations and event logistics, says the Toronto Humane Society’s previous PSAs have been very traditional, informative spots, and this is the first time they pursued something more.

“A lot of times animal shelters focus on making people feel really sad,” she says. “We wanted to do something that made you think and did have an emotional impact but wasn’t necessarily a tear-jerker.”

The campaign is currently living online and being pushed through social media and PR, although Deleo says the Humane Society and Grip are reaching out to media partners for a televised buy.

In the fall, Amnesty International similarly faked out people looking for a discount travel site to Mexico to highlight human rights issues in the country, while the Montreal SPCA launched a fake discount shopping site that informs fur shoppers about how the fashion industry abuses animals used to make products. These campaigns have become particularly popular with non-profits and organizations promoting specific causes, as it allows them to directly target those whose actions are contributing to the issue at hand.

“It’s great to have people who are clicking on this and thinking, ‘this is something I am interested in,’ only to be surprised when they find out this isn’t real and get our message,” Deleo says.

Deleo says most of the Humane Society’s current supporters are older. The online campaign with a twist is meant to be something people will share on social media, in the hope that a younger demographic will be exposed to the organization’s work.