The “Me” in Anthropomorphism

Millennials Natalie and Juan at the beach with two of their five dogs. Photo by Kelley Frances Smith

Long Beach Millennials Juan, 20, and Natalie, 18, are dating and own five dogs between them. Both plan on having dogs for a couple of years before having children when they get married, whether to each other or not. They fit the 51 percent of the “Me Generation” (Born between 1982-2000) who choose dogs over children.

Humans have been ascribing human characteristics and emotions to non-human things (anthropomorphism) for thousands of years. In the current era, Disney would not be the Disney we know today without the popularity of a whistling, toe-tapping, steamboat-driving mouse. The same goes for “Sesame Street” without Big Bird or “The Family Guy” without the sharp-witted, bipedal [dog], Brian.  

It’s no great revelation we consider our pets—even animated ones—as “part of the family,” yet an estimated 51 percent of the Me Generation are choosing dogs over children, according to Jean M. Twenge, author of “Generation Me.”  The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Millennials numbered 83 million in 2015, so, if Twenge is correct, more than 42 million Millennials have fur babies.

This growing trend is fueling advertisers to look at animal companion preferences and targeting “dog people” with pet-oriented campaigns, while academia is pursuing how we are subjectively comprehending our interspecies connection.  

The concept of companion animals as extension of the self (first derived from researchers in the 1960s), focuses on how humans conceptualize dogs and the importance they place on dogs with their social self.  More recently, in “Understanding Dog-Human Companionship,” Michael Dotson and Eva Hyatt take it further and introduce a dog-oriented self-concept approach and suggest dog owners who score high are likely to see themselves as “dog people” with their dogs playing a central role in their lives. With the under-35 respondents, there is also a greater willingness to adapt their lifestyles to accommodate their dogs. 

When marketing firms adapt strategies to target Millennial “parents,” 44 percent of them only have “starter children,” aka dogs. When Adweek quips that “the fur baby economy is real,” it’s no joke. By the end of 2017, Americans will spend an estimated $69.36 billion on pets according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. With this level of spending, future marketing trends will not only focus on using anthropomorphism to elicit an emotional response, but will ramp it up because it’s a very effective marketing strategy.  

Among Millennials who have a social media account for their pet, 66 percent are on Facebook, 38 percent are on Twitter and 34 percent are on Instagram, according to a recent Wakefield Research survey.

As long as Millennials continue to seek validation from their peers when they use their pets as a form of social currency to get “likes,” advertisers will look at how millennials are extending their personas to their dogs and run with it.

To say we have self-conceptualized our dogs to the point they are stand-ins for children or a significant other is not far from pseudo-reality. Our growing exposure to anthropomorphism in all media, especially social media, is making it harder to dial back contributing projecting our thoughts and emotions onto dogs and thinking they think as we do or want the same things. But, whether it’s that four-legged character that sits beside us on the couch or an animated one on TV, we think of them as an extension of ourselves and our feelings of solidarity with them cannot be denied.

When Seth MacFarlane killed off “Family Guy’s” Brian Griffin in 2013, he did so to shock his audience and to remind them anything can happen. Viewers who believed Brian’s demise was permanent, showed their outrage by refusing to watch the show, created petitions online to bring him back and even got tattoos in remembrance. In response to the uproar, MacFarlane tweeted he’d “have to be f***ing high to permanently kill the character off.”

The reality is we know we can’t kill off anthropomorphism either because it’s here to stay.  

We can, however, start looking at it in a more subjective way and step aside a bit from social media to allow anthropologists, animal behaviorists and researchers to scientifically study the inner lives, feelings and emotions of our dogs and report on how smart they are in canine terms while, at the same time, giving back their hard-earned status as dog.  



  • Me’s feel that getting a pet is part of preparing to have a family—82% vs. 59%
  • Me’s more likely to splurge on pet items—76% vs. 50%
  • Me’s think it’s important to have a “portable” pet—61% vs. 31%
  • Me’s are nearly twice as likely to buy clothing for their pet—60% vs. 35%:
  • Me’s think it’s essential to dine with their pets—53% vs. 09%

—Wakefield Research survey


Interesting fact: all their dogs are rehomed and not rescued or from breeders which goes against the Me Gen trend.  

Carl Gustav Jung said the acceptance of the animal soul is the condition for wholeness and a fully lived life and to suppress man’s “animal being” is to wound his psyche to the point of destruction.  Whereas the “primitive man must tame the animal in himself and make it his helpful companion” he said, “civilized man must heal the animal in himself and make it his friend.”  

Since 1964, when Jung promoted the idea of the “animal being” within, the human-animal psycho-social connection has been greatly explored. Now, with the rise of social media and a new generation showing off their pets as an extension of the self, it’s necessary to look at how far we anthropomorphize our friends for that wholeness we seek and to consider it a condition that needs to be reversed.  


By Kelley Frances Smith


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