The Art of Cat Litter Advertising

The Era of Proliferating Cat Litter Brands (and their Advertisements)

By the 1950s, clay box filler became more commonplace, followed by the proliferation of new brands in the 1960s. In an era of prosperity and growing consumer demand, a dizzying array of new cat litter brands hit America’s grocery and pet store aisles. Their advertisements filled newspapers and glossy magazines, copying other print advertising practices that drew on well-understood stereotypes of women and African Americans. From these advertisements, we can discern how cat litter brands promoted particular attitudes about indoor cats.

Who is the Consumer Here?

Nowhere are the boundaries between human pet-owner and companion animal more intertwined than in the question of cat litter consumption. Cats are the actual consumers of cat litter, but their human owners conduct the research, purchasing, transportation, and disposal. Cat litter producers, then, have always had to satisfy a market with a number of segments. Journalist Meg Cox wrote in 1984 that “cats are all owned by somebody, and that circumstance makes for even more distinctions. For the well-to-do cat owner the producers have one kind of cat litter, and for the thrifty a humbler dirt. There are also litters for the doting owner and litters for the lazy.” This conflation of cats with their owners, and the idea of appealing to owners’ individual tastes, is evident in an ad campaign by Lowe’s from 1985, which could have appeared in pet magazines, promotional giveaways, or exhibits at conferences like the Pet Expo (run by the American Pet Products Association) or the National Cat Show.

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An advertising still in the style of Louis XIV featuring a white long-haired cat perched on a cushioned chair. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives

One photo features a pristine, white long-haired cat perched, its front paws crossed, on a cushioned chair in a pink room, complete with chandelier. The caption typed on the back of the photograph reads: “The chandelier is pure crystal. The jewels are priceless trinkets from the Far East. And the gold throne, reminiscent of Louis XIV, is filled to the royal brim with Kitty Litter Brand cat box filler. It’s a room designed for feline fantasies; a Persian’s paradise created by Lowe’s, Inc., to honor cats of all kinds during National Pet Week May 5–11, 1985.”

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An advertising still in a Middle Eastern Style featuring a Siamese cat and a trough of cat litter in the background. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives

Another ad features a Siamese cat in a room filled with Middle Eastern objects including a hookah, a hanging red lamp, intricate wooden screens, and plush silk pillows with, of course, a trough of cat litter in the background. The caption evokes exotic luxury that both cat and owner deserve: “Even the most aloof of felines would envy the royal treatment at the ‘CleoCatra’ salon where silk covered pillows and lush woven rugs provide queenly pleasures.”

Pampered Cats: Bagging Gender and Race

The popularity of cat litter aligned with the increased presence of indoor cats, and litter bag and print advertisements reflected this by depicting pampered, protected feline companions.

 

Above, Johnny Cat cat litter advertisements from the 1960s and 2018. Although Jonny has been updated, many of the same elements are the same, including his belled collar.

One newspaper coupon for the Johnny (or Jonny) Cat brand featured its iconic black and white “tuxedo” cat with a belled collar, tail cheerfully upright, who looks straight at the viewer.  The details suggest that this is an indoor cat living a comfortable life. Compare the 1962 ad from the Los Angeles Times, above on the left, with its modern counterpart on the package.

In an ad from Waverly Pet Products (courtesy of the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives), a black-and-white tuxedo cat sits with its back to the viewer, peering over its shoulder coyly, mouth open in a smile. Like Jonny Cat, its neck is adorned with a bell, and it wears a bright red bow around its neck, with small, cartoonish red hearts popping out of its head.

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An ad for Waverly Pet Products’ Kitty Box Pet Litter, featuring a black-and-white tuxedo cat with a red bow and hearts popping out of its head. From the “Competition” file of the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives.

Above: Two months from Compared to images from Esquire’s 1951 and 1953 pin-up calendars, which bear a striking resemblance to the cat in Waverly’s advertisement.

Its bodily position and facial expression, at first glance, seem inexplicably feminine. A closer look reveals that the post recalls the visual practices of pin-up culture. Compared to images from Esquire’s 1951 and 1953 pin-up calendars, the resemblance is striking. The situations depicted in these images are similar: all are caught in a personal act, and they flirt at the viewer with gleeful and alluring expressions.  The pin-up ad features a woman who appears to invite some sort of sexual engagement.  But what does this pose mean when it’s translated onto a cat in a litter box? The cat, like the pin-up girls, looks at the viewer, seemingly inviting and enticing them. The cat, caught in the middle of an “elimination” act, seems to depict a combination of love and embarrassment, perhaps inviting the consumer to purchase the bag.

Above, the “Cat Litter For Real Hep Cats” (author’s collection) compared to sheet music covers for My Long-Tail Blue and Zip Coon (1834), images provided by Johns Hopkins’ Levy Sheet Music Collection and Brown University Libraries’ Digital Repository.

Other kitty litter ads drew on preexisting images from minstrelsy and cartoons (which drew on minstrelsy characters) to communicate the idea of the “fancy” indoor cat. One bag of Cat Litter “for real hep cats!” produced by the Excel-Mineral Company in Los Angeles (perhaps the forerunner of Jonny Cat) features an anthropomorphic cat in a white-tie tails tuxedo with a top hat and cane. With its top hat, cane, watch chain, and tails, the cat bears a striking resemblance to the ubiquitous image of the antebellum “dandy” blackface minstrel, which was later crystallized in the character of “Zip Coon,” as seen on the sheet music covers for My Long-Tail Blue and Zip Coon (1834), images provided by Johns Hopkins’ Levy Sheet Music Collection and Brown University Libraries’ Digital Repository.

The character of Zip Coon was a “dandy,” a fancily dressed, arrogant free black man from the North. Early cartoons, on which this and other advertisements drew, borrowed heavily from on the well-known stereotypes of the vaudeville and minstrel stage, which were replete with images of African Americans. Many of these typical elements of blackface minstrelsy on the vaudeville stage—like gloves and wide eyes—are still a part of cartoon images today.

As this Vox YouTube video shows, cartoons and blackface minstrelsy were closely aligned from the beginning.

Drawing on this contentious racial history, this cat litter bag could easily suggest a fancy, pampered cat living the life of indoor luxury. In another sense, however, it also draws connections between the ways pets and people of color have been objectified throughout American history. These cases of litter bag design, which integrated recognizable gender and racial clichés, reveal how the lives of humans and animals are always intertwined, especially in the human imagination.

Works Cited

Cox, Meg. “When Kitty Needs to Go Freshen Up, Technology is Ready.” Wall Street Journal (Feb. 15, 1983): 1.

Lehman, Christopher P. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907–1954. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.

Sammond, Nicholas. “‘Who Say Who Dat?’: Racial Masquerade, Humor, and the Rise of American Animation.” In Funny Pictures, ed. Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Williams, Roland Leander. Black Male Frames: African Americans in a Century of Hollywood Cinema, 1903–2003. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

Williams, Roland Leander. Black Male Frames: African Americans in a Century of Hollywood Cinema, 1903–2003. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

Williams, Roland Leander. Black Male Frames: African Americans in a Century of Hollywood Cinema, 1903–2003. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

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Next: Consuming Litter: Purchase and Convenience

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