Josh Allenhound, who comes from Buddy’s Second Chance Rescue in New York, will compete this Sunday on Team Fluff. Elias Weiss Friedman/Animal Planet/Discovery +

How the Puppy Bowl became a marketing juggernaut in its own right

Janet Nguyen Feb 10, 2023
Josh Allenhound, who comes from Buddy’s Second Chance Rescue in New York, will compete this Sunday on Team Fluff. Elias Weiss Friedman/Animal Planet/Discovery +

On Sunday, the nation’s best athletes will descend on a playing field to face off against each other in one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year: The Puppy Bowl XIX. 

Team Ruff and Team Fluff will tussle with one another, play tug-of-war and score touchdowns inside a mini-stadium for the 19th annual Puppy Bowl, which premieres this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on Animal Planet and discovery+ (just before Super Bowl LVII). 

The event aims to raise awareness of animal adoption, featuring puppies that viewers can actually adopt, and highlighting shelters and rescue groups across the U.S. And unlike the Big Game, every competitor winds up a winner: the event boasts a 100% adoption rate. 

Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, called the Puppy Bowl “an ingenious idea as counterprogramming to the Super Bowl.” 

Jimmy Kibble will compete on Team Ruff at the upcoming Puppy Bowl. (Elias Weiss Friedman/Animal Planet/Discovery +)

Millions of people tune in each year to watch the canine sporting event, which first launched back in 2005. In 2021, the event attracted 2.1 million viewers during the broadcast (although that figure dipped to 1.7 million last year). 

“It’s pretty impressive in the context of something that’s running up against the Super Bowl,” Taylor said. 

Companies have taken note, striking up sponsorship deals with Animal Planet. They include Pedigree, pet DNA testing service Wisdom Panel and the dog tick-protection medicine Nexgard, along with brands that aren’t exclusively dedicated to pet products, like Wayfair and Subaru.

But even for those companies, it’s a savvy move, with marketing experts pointing out that they’re still trying to appeal to the show’s demographics. Take Wayfair, an ecommerce company that sells home goods and furniture. 

“The Puppy Bowl appeals to families with children and families are frequently buying furniture and home décor,” said T. Bettina Cornwell, a marketing professor at the University of Oregon. 

And advertising during an event as beloved as the Puppy Bowl can reflect positively on the companies themselves. 

“Research shows that positive emotions, such as those that puppies evoke, transfer to the brands associated with the event,” Cornwell said. 

Cornwell said that advertising that is merely “cute,” but has no reason to be, might not be seen as competent. A brand’s competence is defined by its “ability and skills to meet consumers’ intentions.”

But because the Puppy Bowl is for a cause that’s “competent and meaningful,” it strikes the “perfect balance,” Cornwell explained. 

It’s also much cheaper to run an ad during the event compared to the Super Bowl. A single 30-second spot during the Super Bowl has cost companies up to $7 million.

“The costs to run our commercials in the Puppy Bowl are significantly less, and for our buyers, much more targeted, than the ads that run in the Super Bowl,” said Brian Cavallucci, associate director of advertising for Subaru of America. However, he added that the company “cannot accurately quantify the cost for just one spot in Puppy Bowl, as it is part of a larger negotiation with Discovery across all of their networks for the media buy.”

Back in 2015, Fortune magazine reported that sponsors have to advertise with Animal Planet’s other programs and can’t simply buy commercials for the Puppy Bowl alone. Warner Bros. Discovery did not respond to a request for comment about its advertising revenue by publication time.

The Puppy Bowl also includes “Adoptable Pup” segments that are sponsored by Pedigree, an MVP (Most Valuable Puppy) award from the vacuum brand Bissell, and an Underdog award from Subaru of America.

Kokobean from the Humane Society of Dominica is part of Team Ruff. (Elias Weiss Friedman/Animal Planet/Discovery +)

As the Puppy Bowl has introduced more sponsors, even renaming its stadium the Geico stadium in 2013, the event has attracted some criticism for the “commercialism” of the event.

But Dan Schachner, the referee for the event, said in an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A for Reddit back in 2015 that sponsorship money allows the event to include more dogs. 

“So more puppies are exponentially getting rescued,” he wrote. At this upcoming Puppy Bowl, 122 puppies from 67 shelters are set to make an appearance. 

Subaru, which is coming back for its 13th year as a sponsor, is slated to have several commercials to air during the event and has partnered with Animal Planet to create social media videos that highlight the work one of its local retailers has done to help dogs find a home.

Cavallucci of Subaru said that the company began sponsoring the event because “it really goes hand in hand with our commitment to supporting pets and animal welfare.” He pointed out that the company has been a partner with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for the past 15 years.

Cavallucci noted that the company’s headquarters are in Camden, New Jersey — right outside of Philadelphia. 

“So while we are very excited to see the Eagles play in the Super Bowl, we’re also very excited to have people watch the Puppy Bowl,” Cavallucci said.

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