Why an old commercial for a house hippo still fascinates Canadians today
The Canadian house hippo commercial has gained a cult following over the years, with thousands of people across the country still paying tribute to the mythical house pet that appeared on our screens in 1999.
Most recently, the house hippo was revived in a 2019 ad by Ontari0-based MediaSmarts that warns modern audiences about the dangers of misinformation on the internet.
All of it pays homage to the original public broadcast, which shows the sweet little hippo scavenging for crumbs of peanut butter toast and running away from a house cat.
The original 1999 commercial was designed to teach children about fake news (because, much to everyone's chagrin, house hippos aren't actually a thing), but the adorable little pet has since taken on a life of its own.
So what was the inspiration behind the hippo?
Well, it was a mash-up of Canadian wildlife commercials and a lightning bolt moment, according to Siobhan Dempsey, one of the writers behind the original PSA.
"I think Malcolm [Roberts] said, 'How about a tiny animal that lives in your house?'" Dempsey told Freshdaily. "He had a young son at the time and thought it might be kind of magical."
"The hippo was just the funniest animal we could think of, and yet somehow the most plausible. A giraffe or moose just seemed too fake somehow."
She added that they never expected the house hippo to become a Canadian icon.
"It's shocking," Dempsey said. "It didn't receive a ton of attention at the time, it didn't win industry accolades and it didn't make us famous. It's only now that the kids who saw that ad are online and in advertising that we're getting the impact of it."
"It was a labour of love to get it made for almost nothing, and we loved it personally, but we had no idea it would be so beloved."
There's no question that Canadians are still obsessed with the house hippo even now, decades later — but why?
Well, it turns out that it really is a mystery, according to MediaSmarts Executive Director Kathryn Ann Hill, who was part of the team behind the 2019 reboot.
"I'm at a loss to explain it, quite frankly," Hill told Freshdaily. "It just had this cultural moment in the nineties."
Hill credits Canadians' fascination with the house hippo to a mixture of childhood nostalgia and an ongoing obsession with cute, miniature things (hello, teacup pigs).
"Why hippos? Why do we have a fondness for hippos?" she mused. "There's something about them that's cute. It's the idea of taking this giant, enormous creature and turning it into something really cute and small."
Hill added that Canadians always get excited when she brings up the house hippo. She's seen people's faces light up at conferences. She's seen people cheer and applaud.
"I have not met a single person who knows the house hippo and who isn't thrilled about it," she said.
Hill believes that the house hippo still resonates with most Canadians today — and in some ways, the hippo's message has never been so relevant.
"Manipulating content has existed since media was created," she said. "What's different for us now is the volume and speed. We just have to post something online."
Hill noted that the house hippo is something that all Canadians can rally behind.
"It's just light-hearted and fun and uniquely Canadian," she said. "It is a wonderful way to communicate a serious message."
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