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Animals in advertising – Hippopotamus
Hippopotamuses are considered very dangerous: the most dangerous animal of Africa say some sources .

Hence Hippos are not often seen in print advertising: pre­su­mably no product, or service, would like an association with danger, or risk . The few times that they are sum­moned, there is a good chance that it is to recommend a car. I find this remarkable: car brands certainly will want to avoid any suggestion that driving may be dangerous, wouldn't they?

first published: xii.2022

Copywriters may realize
that Hippopotami are dangerous, but they will never use this know­ledge in an advertisement. They will rather try to get the Hippo to bring that pinch of humor so sought after in advertising, and they will try to achieve it preferably without emphasizing any real characteristic of the animal. If copywriters do refer to a characteristic then it is an external feature, not something that refers to the animal's way of life or behaviour : Hippopotamuses (both plurals are valid) are large, strong, and grey.

Freedom should experience
no limits, says advert No. 1 for a Sports Utility Vehicle. Here the Hippo, as a proxy for the environment it lives in, stands for wilderness and adventure. Take an African, preferably tall iconic species, and there you have it: safari, adventure, escape, freedom. It is a common approach certainly with vehicles, but also for other things: see f.e. Elephant, Zebra, or Giraffe. The unlimited freedom itself is suggested by the position of the vehicle: off-road and mingling with the Hippos.

(1) 2002 – Freedom should experience no limits
— crossover SUV.
(2) 1994 – Perfect for the city safari
— compact car.

In Perfect for
the city safari (2) Hippopotami are asked for some help with selling compact cars. The text says (translated from Dutch): The city is full of pitfalls. But that is exactly what the Tiguan likes. He feels at home in a wilderness of roadworks, unexpected obstacles and speed bumps. … Perfect for surviving in the urban jungle.

In this example there is no mention of freedom, and otherwise than in the previous advert (1) product and animal are placed opposite each other. The Hippo still refers to the wild environment where safaris happen, and the unexpected events that stand for adventure, but it is one of the rare occasions where adventure is something that is not wanted. No feature of the species is mentioned.

In Feel the
pulse of Botswana (5) and in Afrika in all its glory (11) the Hippo again stands for wilderness and safari and evokes the strong points of the country. A country is often represented by a typical species living within its borders. We have examples with other species online : elephant ≡ South Africa (see Elephant); tiger ≡ Asia (see Bigger cats).

(3) 1983 – One will have to go on foot
— compact car.
(4) 2006 – Suddenly there is room for something else— multifunctional printer.

In the compact
city car (3) with a sea of space and comfort the Hippo is not chosen because of anything very specific. It is simply because Hippos are huge animals; any other tall species could have been chosen. In fact, in 2006 the brand of No. 2 took a Giraffe to bring the same message —our car is astonishingly spacious— about its own compact car.

Notice that they are trying to tickle our funny bone: One will have to go on foot. There are limits to everything, five hippos is really one too many, even for our car.

The multifunctional printer
of No. 4 takes a similar approach. The printer is so compact that suddenly there is room for something else: for your preferred pet. Hippo again chosen because they are huge.

(5) 1994 – Feel the pulse of Botswana — hotel.
(6) 2007 – Visions of Grey. — aluminum windows and doors.
(7) 1995 – A smoother image could benefit your business — paper for printing.

Time to learn
more about Hippopotamuses. We know already that they are huge animals (3, 4). In advert No. 6 for window frames in aluminum we are told that Hippos are strong and that their skin colour is grey. Under the caption (from Dutch) Strong can be subtly beautiful. And stay that way., the designer explains I see three important grey values in nature. I call them Hippo, Turtle, and Dolphin. Each colour comes in four shades … That is reason enough to underline this important insight with a portrait of a Hippo: subtle beauty.

The designer of
the next advert (7) doesn't share this opinion, I dare say. Could your business benefit from a smoother image? is part of a series with several animals: e.g. slick toad, bright fish. The advert tells business people they will be much better off using this specific printing paper for all their stationary. Does anyone these days still remembers what paper was? The explanation refers only indirectly, if at all, to the animal depicted which may be an illustration of the keyword in the title, or quite the opposite like here. Obviously any animal that looks like a bully to human eyes could be used.

(8) 1999 – Better 4 IT specialists with us … than 2 on a hippo. — job openings.
(9) 2005 – If you fancy something nice — mineral water.

Yellow-billed oxpeckers
(8) and Cattle egrets (9) are indeed often seen foraging on the back of hippopotamuses, so the designer has the facts right. But, even after careful reading of the copy, why this particular combination of animals was chosen remains unexplained in both.

In advert No. 8 the company looking for four IT specialists states Better 4 computer specialists at … than 2 on a hippopotamus. It sounds rather like nonsense. Is it to arouse the curiosity of potential candidates? And is this a first filter to attract the right profile? People with a sense of absurd humor?

Advert No. 9 about mineral water is just as puzzling as the previous one. The suggestion of an exquisite morsel of food is enhanced by the presence of the food dome. So far so good : a Cattle egret will certainly appreciate a tasty tick or two. But the advert is about mineral water which won't well up from the hippo's back, mineral or not. The liquid in this story may therefore be a fine fresh drop of blood emerging from the hippo's back. But as far as I know, this species of bird doesn't drink the blood of its host, the bird of the previous example does. That would have been a better choice, but then the food dome would be far too big. And while an egret has to search for a tick and the food dome correctly is suggesting a hidden treasure is being revealed, this would not do for an oxpecker. The oxpecker itself makes the drop appear where it pecks, there is no searching, and no surprise element and therefore in the story no place for a dome.

(10) 1994 – Tired of having printing problems?
— print servers.
(11) 1995 – Africa in all its glory
— fly-in safaris.

Tired of having
Ethernet printing problems? (10) stems from a time when it often was a real challenge indeed to make a network printer do what it was bought for —sometimes it still is, but things have improved since then, for sure.

Again the Hippo is used as a vaguely comical creature, this time for its behaviour. While the copywriter wants to evoke a feeling of being tired, the gaping mouth in reality is a warning to stay away: the choice of image is based on a misinterpretation of the scene.

Also, in my opinion, the use of the word tired is not optimal. For example, I wouldn't become tired of all those problems, but rather irritated. And then the image suddenly becomes appropriate.

Our conclusion is
that copywriters hardly understand anything about hippos. The animal is also dangerous, so they better stay away from it.

  The website Safaris Africana (visit on 07.xi.2022) rates the Hippo as the second dangerous animal of Africa and these animals are estimated to kill an incredible 3 000 people each year. (see https://safarisafricana.com/most-dangerous-animals-africa/) The same website however on its page about the Hippo (see https://safarisafricana.com/animals/hippo/) states also Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa, killing up to 500 people every year. Now, that really is a wide margin of uncertainty.
  Presumably with the exception of insurance companies.

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