Advertising horse power: what a moonwalking Shetland pony tells us about the future of comms

And so it was the week where the nation was transfixed by a moonwalking Shetland pony. Racking up nearly four million youtube views, and prompting the Daily Mail to ask ‘Is this the funniest ad of the year?’, Three’s Fleetwood Mac loving, Tina Turner wig wearing equine has taken the blogosphere by storm.

My inclination was to be cynical – I’ve seen it all before. In the days before circuses became more ethically minded, I encountered tap-dancing chickens, rollerskating bears, and a twinkle toed horse that would have left Three’s Shetland eating dust. Animals have always had a huge power to captivate the public imagination. It’s something Barnum understood well. His African elephant Jumbo was a walking, trumpeting advert for his show, in spite of the fact he never actually appeared in the ring himself. Even his acquisition from London Zoo attracted huge attention. When Barnum’s intentions to buy the elephant became known, 100,000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria protest. No doubt the master showman would have been delighted with the publicity.

Some of my most successful stunts have rested on the irrational predilection of editors for animals behaving in human like fashion. Setting up canine weddings at Harrods, complete with cakes, veils, and horse drawn carriages, was a particularly enjoyable one. And who will ever forget the Tamworth Two: the plucky pigs that made their escape from the abattoir and went on a cross country dash, ultimately ending their days in an animal sanctuary rather than a bacon sarnie, thanks to our campaign in The Daily Mail?

But perhaps there’s more to the success of this ad that meets the eye.

What hasn’t been widely noted by commentators (except by the wags at The Poke, who made the spoof above) is two significant media events shaping the public imagination at the moment: the huge Fleetwood Mac comeback tour, and of course, the horsemeat scandal. The ad has served as pleasing reminder that ponies are cuddly and cute, accompanied by a nostalgic soundtrack of sunny folk-rock – the perfect antidote to unsavoury speculation about the stuff on our dinner plate.

Would the ad have had the same resonance if it hadn’t arrived on the back of these popular memes? There’s no way of knowing. But viewed in this light, it certainly makes the campaign looks smarter, savvier, and more contemporary, whether the brains at the creative agency behind it, Weiden+Kennedy, were intentionally playing on them or not.

It’s a reminder of the fact that, in the Now Economy, brands need to be fleet of foot. Advertising cannot exist in a silo. Twitter ensures that the synchronicities with current news stories are likely to be spotted, spread, and turned into blogosphere fodder. In a worst case scenario, they can cause a significant crisis: just ask Nike about their Oscar Pistorius ‘I am the bullet in the chamber’ ads.

This is why integrated, PR led approaches to comms are more crucial than ever. It isn’t enough to understand trends. The brands of tomorrow will understand how their marketing strategies interact with breaking news. They’ll be in possession of the narratives that are firing the public psyche today, and understand how to turn them to their advantage.

What’s certain though is that come what may, people are always going to like animals doing funny stuff. For better or worse, dancing ponies are here to stay. No matter how infuriating we find them.