Does your content need a cat?

23rd May 2016
In the online hunt for "cute", our feline overlords win fuzzy-wuzzy paws down. So why are internet cats so popular? BauerWorks' Jo McKinnon looks for answers.

Back in 2014, estimated there were more than two million cat videos on YouTube which had been watched 25 billion times – an average of 12,000 views per cat video.

One of the most viewed cat videos EVER is “Surprised Kitten” which has notched up more than 76 million views. (That’s more than a Kim Kardashian nude selfie.)

Also in 2014, a survey of British internet users found they shared 3.8 million cat photos and clips each day, about twice as many cat pics as selfies (1.4 million shares).

In 2015, there were 60,500 Google searches each month for “funny cats”. Searches for “funny dogs” were only half that number, and searches for “funny pandas” or “funny goats”, much less.

So why are cats so popular? A panel discussion on “How Cats Won the Internet”, held at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre and including BuzzFeed Australia editor Simon Crerar, pinned down five possible reasons.

1. They’re the real deal

Cats were doing “authentic” long before the term hit the marketing / leadership / political spin buzzword heights. Most refuse to be trained into performing and, unlike dogs, they don’t usually stare at the camera. They’re absolutely unselfconscious. So when you see a cat video it’s almost as if you’re a voyeur, peeking into their private world… like when they’re attacking a printer, or when Maru is doing his thing with a box

2. They’re slapstick geniuses (and we know they won’t get hurt)

Anyone who has lived with a cat knows they can be utter goofballs, but mostly they come out OK – cats have nine lives after all. At times it’s like watching Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Funny Cat Jump Fails 2015 anyone? 

3. The internet is a “cat park”

There’s a popular view that the internet is the cat owners’ equivalent of a dog park. For hundreds of years, cat owners have seen their cats being silly but not been able to share it, as the incidents happened in private. “Now the internet is there, and they can go online, and the internet is the place where they can laugh and discuss other people’s cats at well,” says Crerar. Just for something to enjoy, here’s BuzzFeed’s most important 100 cat pictures of all time

We have a saying at BuzzFeed, if you don’t find this kind of thing cute then you’re probably a psychopath.

Simon Crerar, BuzzFeed Australia

4. We enjoy the emotional buzz

While watching cat videos can steal more of the workday than we’d like to admit, the resulting “awww” boosts people’s moods and could even make them more productive. Japanese researchers have proposed that a cat’s big eyes, small nose and broad forehead make us react to it in the same way we do to babies. And when American researcher Jessica Gall Myrick surveyed 7000 cat video fans, she found their negative emotions were lower and positive emotions were higher after viewing internet cats. “Cats just do crazy things, and they’re crazily cute,” says Crerar. “These are things that really hit people in the tummy and really make them feel great. We have a saying at BuzzFeed, if you don’t find this kind of thing cute then you’re probably a psychopath.”

5. Cats are made for mash-ups and going viral

It’s easy to project different emotions or add captions to a cat image: the funnier, the better. Grumpy Cat, the OMG Cat and Lil Bub are meme sensations – and the pat-a-cake cats still hold a special place in the internet’s heart.

Cats also transcend language. “They’re massive in Russia, they’re massive all around the world,” says Crerar. “They’re something that unites people. Whether it’s hot or cold, Siberian or Egyptian cats, people love them.” He adds that: “Motivation for why people share is what we’re really curious about [at BuzzFeed]. A big thing is surprise –this sense that this isolated incident has been magically captured by chance by somebody who’s filming their cat is often the thing that makes something go viral.”

So if cute cats are so engaging, why aren’t more brands littering their messages with felines? Well although pet product ads have long starred kitties that make you go “squee!”, the fun and spontaneity we so love in cat videos can’t be made to order.

Even IKEA UK’s attempt, where 100 everyday moggies wander through the Wembley IKEA store, failed to achieve the tummy-warming awww effect cat video watchers want. Removed from their familiar home territories, these cats were mildly charming, but they weren’t funny.

Mostly, when we need cats to do ‘funny’ in commercials, the wonders of CGI come to the fore, giving cats thumbs or transporting them in herds to the great American plains. It’s humorous, but it’s not real.

But sometimes commercial brands and reality do weave together. UK grocery chain Sainsbury’s – famous for its Sainsbury’s Christmas cat ad – had a real-life, rather appealing British shorthair frequent its Brockley store in London in November 2015. The irony was it couldn’t capitalise on this serendipitous dose of tabby.

The six-year-old cat, Olly Oliver, lived next door to the supermarket, and had decided to stalk its aisles and perch on its shelves to deliver judgments on shoppers’ purchases. Security had to keep taking him outside. “He’s in here every day, all the time,” said a store spokesman. “He’s not allowed to be here. The staff like him, but he is a health and safety risk.”

It’s sad that supermarkets and real-world moggies can’t mix, but if you want your brand to tap into the tabbyverse, remember to keep your cats real, let them be themselves, and film the blighters constantly.

Cute cat fishbowl

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