By BEN WALKER
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — Pet lovers won’t have to look away anymore when those heart-wrenching TV ads appear during the Westminster dog show — the ones with the pitiful little faces peering out from behind those rusted bars of a cage and wondering “how I ended up in here.”
Happy dogs will rule the air waves this year, thanks to a new sponsor for America’s most prestigious dog competition and a decision to air ads that shift the focus away from sad-eyed animals in need of adoption.
“The feedback we got from our primary audience was that they were seeing commercials that made them want to turn the channel,” Westminster spokesman and longtime TV host David Frei said Thursday.
Nestle Purina PetCare is the new sponsor for America’s most prestigious dog competition that begins Monday at Madison Square Garden, replacing Pedigree after 24 years. The switch will bring a shift in the tone of the television commercials that drew nearly as much attention as who won best in show.
Gone will be the haunting music and woeful pictures of dogs with pleading eyes wasting away at the pound, hoping to be adopted. Instead, Purina’s main spots will feature dogs running on the beach, catching a Frisbee, frolicking in the snow and riding a surfboard.
Frei said he thought the Pedigree commercials took the wrong approach, backed by viewers who either muted the spots or flipped the channel and didn’t turn back.
“Show me an ad with a dog with a smile. Don’t try to shame me,” he said. “We told them that and they ignored us.”
He added: “Our show is a celebration of dogs. We’re not promoting purebreds at the expense of non-purebreds. We celebrate all dogs,” he said. “When we’re seeing puppies behind bars, it takes away from that. Not just because it’s sad, but it’s not our message.”
More than 2,000 purebred champion dogs are entered in the 136th Westminster Kennel Club show, with the winner to be chosen Tuesday night. Each evening at the Garden, an announcement is read over the public-address system encouraging people to visit shelters and adopt a pet.
The commercials air on USA Network and CNBC, which share coverage of the event. About 3.4 million viewers watched last year when a Scottish deerhound called Hickory won.
Pedigree was “surprised and disappointed” when it was dropped by Westminster, senior brand manager Lisa Campbell said.
Campbell said Westminster had made it clear in recent years “that we had become too focused on adoptions.” She acknowledged that the ads struck a nerve and said there are other ways to encourage pet adoption.
She was certain, though, that the ads were effective. Campbell said shelters around the country had thanked Pedigree for raising the plight of homeless dogs. She said 4 million dogs get put in shelters each year and only half make it out. Among those who found a home was Sweet Pea, the pug mix she regularly takes to work with her.
“Westminster has been a great platform for us,” she said. “We were able to tap into a dog-loving audience.”
Melissa Martellotti, spokeswoman for parent company Mars Petcare US, said Pedigree had contributed $7 million to the pet adoption cause since 2006.
Frei said Westminster has input into the commercials Purina will show during its multiyear deal as a sponsor. He said Westminster had the same understanding with Pedigree, “but things that ended up on the air were not what we were led to believe.”
Purina had long maintained a presence at Westminster and became a partner last June. Candy Caciolo, the company’s portfolio director of specialty, breeder and pet acquisition, arrived in New York on Thursday, minus her two standard poodles, Peaches and Anne.
The companies and show officials declined to say how much Purina or Pedigree paid to secure advertising rights.
Caciolo said next week’s ads had been in development for quite a while. While Purina was aware of the reaction Pedigree’s commercials elicited over the years, “it wasn’t really an issue for us,” she said.
Purina’s ads are based on a theme: Inside every good dog is a great dog. Its main 60-second spot shows lots of wagging tails — there are therapy dogs, rescue dogs, guide dogs, show dogs, household pets and a playful pooch greeting a serviceman.
Said Caciolo: “We’re unleashing a new direction.”