In this issue’s Campaign Ad Scorecard, Simon Dumenco compares Mike Bloomberg’s historic presidential campaign implosion to the Pets.com collapse of 2000. We can think of no better excuse than that to revisit the dot-com cautionary tale.
The Pets.com sock puppet mascot made the cover of Ad Age’s special “Interactive” edition in August of 2000—for all the wrong reasons. “In the annals of ad spokescharacter history, there are icons such as the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Green Giant that have withstood the test of time,” Debra Aho Williamson wrote. “And there are those that soared briefly across public consciousness—remember Budweiser’s Spuds MacKenzie?—and flamed out in licensed merchandise dumped in closeout stores.”
Then there’s the Pets.com pooch.
On the cover, under the headline “Dot-com dog days,” the spokesmutt is portrayed flat on its back, still clutching its Pets.com microphone, with tire treadmarks running across its torso. Subtle.
The pup has become the poster dog for all things dot-com bubble: A San Francisco-based startup, Pets.com sold pet supplies online. It had a brief run but burned brightly (it also burned a lot of cash): The company began operations in November 1998 and would liquidate exactly two years later in 2000, just three months after Williamson’s cover story. The puppet was the centerpiece of a high-profile marketing campaign that peaked with an appearance in the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a Super Bowl ad in 2000.
The puppet itself—googly-eyed and voiced by comedian Michael Ian Black—was the creation of TBWAChiatDay’s San Francisco office, which also gave us the Taco Bell chihuahua (1999 was a good year for man’s best friend). The puppet starred in a series of irreverent ads that were popular enough to get the mascot interviewed by People magazine and appear on “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.” What a time it was to be alive.
But all good (and annoying) things must come to an end. Pets.com’s demise stands today as an allegory of the early internet’s hubris: In the fourth quarter of 1999, the company spent more than $3.50 on marketing and sales expenses for every dollar of revenue.
The puppet remains preserved in the internet amber that is YouTube and, if anything, the commercials it starred in are more fun to revisit than any of Bloomberg’s.
Click on Pets.com today, and you are redirected to PetSmart, a retailer that also controls online powerhouse Chewy. Pets.com had the right idea, just the wrong millennium.