It was a Wednesday morning in Brooklyn, New York, when I saw it on the subway. To many, it would appear as a simple advertisement – most people would probably look past the dogs sitting in front of a beautiful celebrity. Even fewer people would notice the chains. But as a staunch advocate for Pit Bulls and for defending them in the media, I noticed.
Some might ask, “What do Pit Bulls have to do with Puma shoes?” You can barely see the sneakers behind the blocky-headed dogs in the ad — a bold choice on the part of Puma to be sure, considering the stigma that surrounds the breed “type.”
They appear to have harnessed this stigma in an effort to make the ad look “tough” and “urban.” This, despite the fact that passionate owners and lovers of Pit Bulls have worked tirelessly to change this negative image over the past few decades.
The advertising campaign, featuring Kylie Jenner, was designed as a throwback to the 1968 release of Puma’s Suede shoe, but boomboxes and acid-washed jeans recall an 80’s style. The photographs achieve an urban, old-school feel, with phone booths, graffiti, and vintage vehicles older than the models themselves.
What I’m not sure they realized is that this era also included a resurgence in dog fighting, particularly in the very poverty-stricken communities they seek to emulate. The breeds once heralded as “America’s Dogs” began to be associated with criminal activity during this period.
By the 1980’s, which this campaign mimics, Pit Bulls had become America’s Public Enemy dog. From articles like Sports Illustrated’s piece on Pit Bulls featuring a snarling, vicious-looking dog on the cover, to the first Pit Bull-specific legislation in Hollywood, FL, in 1980, the seed was sown for hysteria lasting even until today.
Even if they weren’t used in dogfighting, Pit Bulls were used to bolster “tough guy” images and encouraged to display aggressive and intimidating behaviors. This time also marked the boom of Pit Bull overbreeding, which is still being perpetrated to this day. Dogs were seen as commodities and “cash cows” rather than pets.
Aggressive behaviors were trained, and even purposefully bred, into Pit Bull bloodlines. This made for the perfect storm of incidents and negative media portrayal that the Pit Bull still deals with currently.
Only one of the ads features the dogs — but that one ad speaks volumes, from the chains they are held on to the unhappy looks on their faces. It’s almost as if the dogs themselves understand that they are unwilling accomplices in an image that should not define them.
PupJournal reached out to several Pit Bull advocates for their response to the photograph, including trainer and animal rights activist Steffen Baldwin, photographers Sophie Gamand and Virgil Ocampo, and the inimitable Rebecca Corry, founder of the Stand Up For Pits Foundation. The responses were varied, with most needing a moment to set eyes on the chains before reality set in.
Washington, D.C., photographer Virgil Ocampo frequently volunteers with rescue organizations and shelters, photographing their dogs to help them get adopted. His photos capture the spirit and lovable traits of so many Pitties. Pit Bulls are commonly found in shelters because of the aforementioned breeding “boom.” Ocampo’s first response was “That’s a pretty cool shot!” However, it only took a beat before he followed up with:
“Although I’m looking closer… and I’m not sure how I feel about the chains. I don’t like how the dogs don’t seem as happy as I feel they should. It coulda (sic) been a nice shot, but I don’t like it as an animal person. [I’d] rather see people loving their dogs wearing Puma. [I’d] be more likely to buy their products instantly.”
Steffen Baldwin had a similar response, commenting “Dope!” at first glance. When asked for more reference, he stated:
“Lol, well I’m a dork and mostly thought it was cool to see a pay phone again. And I saw the chains but I also saw that they were on flat collars. I definitely saw the urban ghetto theme there. [Didn’t know if it was in relation to] the image of a woman being strong and tough enough to handle a dog like that, hence the chain but still with a flat collar. Cool pic though!!!! Lots of ways to read it!!!”
Sophie Gamand is well-known for her “Flower Power” photos — an ongoing series of shots that started with and generally feature Pit Bull types wearing flower crowns. She began the project as a means to soften the image of bully breeds and to help shelter and rescue dogs find homes.
Reacting to the Puma campaign, Gamand said, “As a photographer who has a project focusing on Pit Bulls specifically, I feel there is a lost opportunity here, when it comes to the representation of these dogs. Although I understand that fashion relies heavily on codes that are instantly recognizable (like the ‘scary’ Pit Bull at the end of a chain), they really missed the mark here.”
Related: Dog Abandoned In A Dumpster Was Crowned With Flowers And Now Reigns As Queen in Her Forever Home
She continued, “First, it’s frustrating to see them perpetuate the myth of the Pit Bull and the chain in a rough neighborhood. But we know that this actually happens every day, so the creative team here just drew inspiration from a certain reality. It’s too bad they didn’t take the opportunity to advocate against it (all it would have taken would be for the collars and leash to be normal)…but it’s fashion I guess, and many big brands will not take a chance on these things (or not care, or not be aware of the controversy).”
Gamand added, “Second, I am not sure what the dogs here are supposed to convey, because although I imagine they are meant to be scary or look tough, these two look like absolute sweethearts who really wonder what on earth they are doing there… Is it bad casting? Bad dog portraiture? Or did they purposefully cast sweet looking dogs? I am confused! Maybe next time she should have pumas at the end of a leash instead!”
In perhaps the most colorful reaction to the ad, comedienne and Pit Bull advocate Rebecca Corry did not disappoint with her trademark humor and acerbic wit.
“I would be irate at the fact that in 2016, morons are still perpetuating the ignorant stereotype that Pit Bull type dogs are ‘angry ghetto dogs’ in heavy chains in the ‘hood,’” Corry stated, “but I can’t get past 18-year-old Kylie Jenner, who [has] also been exploited for years and now looks like a 50-year-old Tahoe waitress riddled with childhood trauma. Even the sweet hippos look sad and embarrassed. F*** Puma.”
Animal advocacy writer Cheryl Hannah covered the controversial advertisement for Pet Rescue Report at the end of August. Hannah zeroed in on the “firestorm” of complaints Puma has received regarding the photograph on their Facebook, which seem to make up the majority as at least the first 56 of 579 comments are all chastising Puma for their negative depiction. Many call for a boycott and ask that the image be taken down.
This is also not the first time that Kylie Jenner has come under fire for a dog-related mishap. Back in 2015, she was investigated by animal control regarding the health of her pets after posting a SnapChat video in which her dogs looked visibly underweight. Officers did not find any signs of neglect upon investigation. Teen Vogue reported that Kylie “is the real animal lover in her family” and that she has “amassed quite the number of pets.”
Of course, the perspectives we really want to hear are from those directly involved with creating the campaign, but it seems that Puma is staying quiet on the subject. The images have not been removed, as so many have called for, and there have been no statements issued in defense of or apologizing for the controversial image.
PupJournal spent weeks trying to reach Puma’s PR team, the lead advertising agency that Puma uses, and even the photographer who took the pictures, to better understand the notion behind the campaign.
Claire Charruau, the Associate Communications Director at J. Walter Thompson New York’s advertising agency, was the only person who responded for comment. She stated that JWT had no part in the project, and that “Puma created this campaign internally.” Charruau also could not put us in contact with anyone from Puma’s PR team, who did not respond to multiple attempts to get in touch. Campaign photographer Jamel Shabazz also did not respond to requests for comment.
So was it a case of genuine ignorance that led Puma to use such a questionable image, or did they have an agenda? Any PR, even negative, can be “good PR,” so perhaps they used the heated topic as a means to garner more attention. However, the campaign could have just as easily had the dogs on regular leashes instead of chains, so the image seems like a deliberate choice.
From a Pit Bull advocacy perspective, it’s exploitative and reprehensible that Puma used the misunderstood breed to perpetuate the exact stereotype they’ve become unfairly known for. We hope Puma will respond to the strong reaction many of its customers had to this campaign.