Though I open cans of food for my cats twice a day, I never gave much – if any – thought to the labels on those very cans. Well, at least not until I received a copy of “Cat Food For Thought: Pet Food Label Art, Wit and Wisdom” ($12.00) written by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain. (read on to find out how to win your very own autographed copy of this adorable and entertaining book!).
After observing the colorful, whimsical and sometimes humorous graphics that adorned cat food cans in the 1950s -70s (as featured in the book), the cat food in my cupboard ventured on depressing. I felt a little ripped off.
A brief non-scientific survey supported my theory that cat food labels today play it safe and are incredibly unoriginal and uniform compared to the ones featured in Dotz and Husain’s book.
The labels fell into two camps:
- Camp 1: All conducted the same focus groups and concluded that having a cat on the left side of the can was most appealing to consumers because that’s where their eye goes first when they look at the can (or any photograph or art for that matter). If the brand is friendly, like Friskies or Fancy Feast, the photo is of an adorable sweet fluffy cat. If the brand is based on a cat’s ancestral diet, like Blue Buffalo or Nature’s Variety, you end up with a wilder, more serious feline.
- Camp 2: Has decided to forgo anything resembling wildlife all together. I’m not sure what the thought process was other than,“Perhaps if it non-specific enough, it could be seen as being good enough for a human to consume and therefore a pet parents will be more likely to purchase it .” (I’m totally guessing here. If you have a better theory, please regale me).
Now compare the labels above to one featured in “Cat Food for Thought,” which the authors say were influenced by comic books and children’s breakfast cereal branding among other things.
Enough about my theories on cat food labels, I had the opportunity to speak to one of the author’s himself, Warren Dotz, and of course my first question was about….cats!
Did you or Masud grow-up with or currently have cats?
As a kid growing up in NY my older brother had what I thought was the coolest after-class job: he filled up soda vending machines on his college campus and emptied the change. He had shoes boxes at home filled with all the coinage.
He also brought home one summer, a kitty who liked to sit and sleep in the boxes because the coins felt nice and cool to her––I named her Nickels. I should design a label in her honor with a starburst of “5 cents off” in the corner.
My current cat is not mine. It’s my neighbor’s. I gave her a dedication in the book. She sees me coming back from work some days, scoots across the street and sits on my brick steps with me looking over San Francisco Bay.
I’m not always convinced whether Christina Kitzy Witz comes to see me or just to soak up the warmness of the brick or the cool view of the Golden Gate. She’s my slice of the cat world. She’s comfortable with me as you can see in this picture I took of her this past summer. She’s a beautiful cat!
Masud, my coauthor, he’s the real cat owner. He was a dog person when he met his wife, but with her came three cats. Like a quote in our book, his life has been a “series of furry episodes” ever since. I think there are nine of them and they’re all in the acknowledgments.
His current cat is a huge Maine Coon called Coco. Masud tells me she’s the most attention-grabbing cat he’s ever had. When he watches TV and gets engrossed, he looks down to see he’s sleeping in his lap. His wife is jealous the cat spends more time with him than her.
I know how she feels in that I am often around his design studio working on our book projects and Coco hasn’t let me come within 5 feet of her, ever! I want to hug her. But it’s not to be.
How did you come to select cat food/product labels as the subject for a book?
Well, I like to collect beautiful paper label art whether they be from Japanese or Indian matchboxes, packs of firecrackers or Mad Men era product. I found a few great pet food labels, but who would have thought to save them. Then one day I won a huge estate auction of labels, saved not by a collector, but a pet food executive. I guess one person’s corporate espionage became my treasure and the starting point of the book.
Even with all those labels I needed to find more of the very best on Ebay and through ephemera dealers. When someone found a great label in the back of an old kitchen cabinet or run-down garage, I was there to not only save it from the scrap heap but also present it in its true graphic beauty.
Tell us about the selection process for the labels:
Well, I didn’t want the book to look old so many antiquated and older labels were out. We love modern design so I liked the look of the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s labels. Since Mad Men is “in” these days I knew it would be appealing to others as well. At the end of the 70’s the pet food business became consolidated. The smaller food companies merged and the label art became less interesting and eventually became photographic with few illustrations.
Have you spent any time looking at current cat packaging, if so, any thought or observations?
Many of the current pet food label art want to latch onto “the science behind the brand.” So much of the art is serious and still there is greater use of photography than illustrations. I have seen some boutique brands of cat food in particular with cute “retro” artwork. The only difference is that there is an active effort by the illustrator to deliver “cuteness.”
The label art in “Cat Food for Thought” are cute in a naive sort of way. If they had been thinking of “perception” way-back-when, they’d probably have found euphemisms for “chopped kidney” or “ground chicken” that appear on a few labels. As someone concerned with animal rights, I seriously considered excluding those labels. But eventually decided they are what they are and just like a cat there is cuteness and occasionally some gore too.
TAMAR HERE: I forgot to mention that in addition to the beautifully designed labels, the book contains some funny, cute and witty quotes. I’m sure many you’ll be able to relate to Here are just a few of my favorites to whet your palate:
- “Never feed your cat anything that clashes with the carpet.” Cat Owner’s Adage
- “Cats know how to obtain food without labor, shelter without confinement and love without penalties.” – W.L. George, writer
- “We have three cats. It’s like having children, but there is no tuition involved” – Ron Reagan, writer
- “If you want the best seat in the house, move the cat.” – Cat Owner’s Adage
Trust me, it’s hard not to give them all away but I was sworn to secrecy, you’ll have to get the book to read them all (it’s totally worth it).
What about the quotes?
Again I wanted the quotes to reflect a more modern perspective. There are hundreds of cat related proverbs, quotations and witty observations. But they needed to match the imagery of the label. I didn’t use quotes that were negative to dogs and vice a versa. I didn’t want quotes from people who lived a hundred years ago. As you know, we produced a companion book about dogs called “Dog Food for Thought.” (Tamar, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.“)
It turned out that the cat quotes were just as, or even more interesting, because as we all know cats can be quite naughty, aloof, stubborn and demanding . I even had a professional comedy writer, Neil Berliner, and several cat owners weigh in on what they thought were the best and brightest quotes. I wanted them to be fun and funny but above all capture the spirit of cats!
And what can you tell us about the design of the book?
We wanted a book that would be cute but also look great on a desk or coffee table. Something your friend could pick up while waiting for you to get dressed or cook diner (or open up the Chinese take-out). We wanted a book that was different from what’s out there: photos of cats with orange peels on their head or knitted sleep caps. Not saying there is anything wrong with that, but I wanted something that could be inspirational to graphic designers while being literate and fun for cat owners. Especially smart and dynamic ones, like you, Tamar (Tamar, “Okay now I’m blushing!”)
Thank you for your time Warren, and all the best to you, Masud, Coco and Christina Kitzy Witz (even though she’s absent from your Warhol-esq photo montage below, we know who the brains behind the operation was).
Peeps, “Cat Food For Thought: Pet Food Label Art, Wit and Wisdom” makes a great gift for any cat or design aficionado. And it’s quite the bargain so stock up people!
Now if you’re a US Citizen (sorry!) and you’d like to win a signed copy of “Cat Food for Thought.” Check out the Raffelcopter below. But please note that the MANDATORY is leaving a comment to this post with a quote or saying you’ve heard about cats. Or make one up yourself! I can’t wait to read what everyone writes! Have fun with it and good luck!