@albertbabycat: A (cute) exercise in capitalism

    Remember that New Yorker cartoon “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog?” Today, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a human. I can’t think of any other explanation for why adults so often engage with @albertbabycat’s content as if Albert, the cat featured, is the mastermind behind his wildly successful Instagram account.

    Photo by @albertbabycat on Instagram

    “Lol oh Albert that is so cute!,” a follower told him recently. “You know you are adorable,” said another. “You have such a pretty face!” commented a third. Albert never replies, but they keep it up.

    Albert is a three-year-old munchkin cat who lives in L.A. with his “parents” Christine Look and Lasitha Menaka. His most striking feature is the disproportionate length of his short, stubby legs. The rest of his body is proportional to other adult cats; he’s the feline equivalent of a Dachshund. In a face capped by perfectly triangular ears, Albert’s brilliant blue eyes stand out, and his circular irises surround pupils that look dime-sized in most photos. His fluffy coat, otherwise white, is marked by brown on his tail and face, and a tiny pink tongue sometimes pokes out of his mouth. Much of the time, Albert’s outlandishly small, fuzzy body is dressed up in equally small, adorable cat clothes – onesies, sweaters, hats, and even costumes (and I mean full on costumes: head to toe outfits including props). Albert is, in other words, extremely cute.

    His owners know this. Albert is not only extremely cute, he is extremely lucrative. He has accumulated almost 500,000 Instagram followers, and he maintains side accounts on Facebook and Twitter (Facebook, the more popular of his secondary pages, lists him as a “Public Figure”). His Instagram posts receive between 10 and 20,000 likes. @albertbabycat partners with powerful multinational corporations like Google, 20th Century FOX, Disney/Pixar, Coca-Cola, Walgreens and Lyft to do “influencer campaigns” and sponsored posts on his platforms. Albert has made television appearances ranging from America’s Next Cat Star to the My Cat From Hell episode “Real Housecat of Orange County”. His Instagram post from the night of February 21 simply proclaims him “😻 Albert, world's most famous munchkin cat” with the word “cat” hashtagged in 29 different languages below. Look says managing Albert’s social media has been her full-time job and source of income for a year and a half now.

    This has all gone well, for the most part, and Albert’s audience has steadily increased. His biggest recent challenge came on the evening of Feb. 11, when @albertbabycat posted a photo of Albert inside a basket full of toys with the caption “🏨 Albert is loving his #TrumpPets welcome basket in our @trumplasvegas Strip View Suite” followed by the comment “# #petfriendlyhotels #partner #trumplasvegas #trumphotels." In an hour, the post had 208 comments (the account’s other posts get anywhere from 30 to 90), most of them disapproving. The page’s follower count dipped from 484k to 483k in that same hour. One fan commented “So sad I have to unfollow :( it was fun while it lasted.” Another chimed in with “Fuck Albert baby cat, fuck his owners, fuck Trump. Eat shit and die racist fuckers.” The post was followed, a few hours later, by an inoffensive unsponsored picture. Two weeks later, Albert hit 485k followers, and the Trump Hotels post had 16,645 likes.

    Look got Albert from a breeder in Orange County as a kitten. She named him after Albert Einstein in hopes that he would grow into a “smart adult cat,” since as a kitten, he wasn’t “all there” – Look would dangle a toy, he would reach up to bat at it, then promptly fall over on his head. He didn’t really grow out of it. Today, Look “wouldn’t say he’s smart. He’s kind of dumb, but he is very cute.” Despite what he lacked in brains, he had plenty of beauty. Look knew almost immediately he could make it in the competitive virtual world of Instagram. About two and a half years ago, she started @albertbabycat. “I wanted to make him famous,” Look said unabashedly. “I thought Instagram was the perfect platform to make that happen.”

    I discovered Albert for the first time in the spring of 2016. I’ve always been a cat lover, and while I wasn’t a frequenter of famous pet circles, a good friend tagged me in an Albert post. “LOOK AT THIS CAT,” she said urgently. I was immediately hooked and quickly followed this baby cat.

    What really drew me in, though, was the absurdity of the cat’s marketing ploys. I could not believe that brands like Coca-Cola were paying money for a cat to promote their goods. Look says she encountered the same skepticism at first. “A lot of people didn’t get the link between having the animal advertise a human product because like, oh, why is the cat advertising Coca-Cola? Cats don’t drink Coca-Cola,” she says. I thought this was a very good question. A day in Albert’s house might include Look waking up and checking Albert’s business email, responding to clients who want more sponsored posts, reaching out and pitching to potential new partners and generally organizing new opportunities for Albert’s brand. When Look began the account, she had no experience with photography, let alone animal photography, but now she and Menaka have figured out what works. They still shoot using only their iPhones, but it can still take between one hour and half the day to get the perfect photo for publication. The pair must frame the photos, dress him up, get the lighting right and wait for the cat to cooperate. “He hates the cameras,” Menaka says. “When he sees the phone, he knows. He gets angry or very rude. It’s hard to take the pictures. People think it’s really easy.”

    Albert’s also hosted meetups – one in Orange County, one in Houston – and Look is thinking about taking him on tour, although the logistics are hard to work out. “He’s really good with the flying,” Menaka says. He’s also great with strangers, according to Look. “If we bring him out and people pet him and people hold him, he’s great,” she says. “He’s not like other cats. He acts like a little dog.”

    The incongruity of a cat with tiny legs hawking Roombas or giving out codes for ride credits on Lyft doesn’t seem to stop it from working. (Disclosure: I tried using the code ALBERTBABYCAT for $50 of ride credit on Lyft, but I wasn’t a first-time rider, so it didn’t work.) Albert’s business opportunities are wildly diverse: one recent partner is the face-in-hole video app Framy. In January, @albertbabycat posted a Framy video featuring Albert’s face on a human body, eating a cheeseburger on a picnic table. Some comments include: “This is the weirdest, most amazing thing ever” and “Creepy af😂.” One of Albert’s more jarring sponsored posts is a Breaking Bad-themed photo of Albert, in lab coat and goggles next to an Erlenmeyer flask atop a pile of money (photo text: HEISENPURR / I AM THE ONE WHO MEOWS) with a caption advertising a giveaway of “Lucky Lotteries Lucky Translators,” a product that claims to translate cat meows to English, for Australian followers.

    There’s no veil over @albertbabycat’s motive. Monetization “was my vision from the beginning,” Look says. “I read somewhere that Grumpy Cat was worth 100 million dollars, so I thought if I could get even one percent of that from Albert, that would be awesome.” Accordingly, posts usually alternate between images of Albert being himself and sponsored content, like Albert posing with a product, complete with a link to buy in the caption and his bio. Some of Albert’s original content borders on the surreal, including the cat standing majestically with long, brown locks flowing in a fake wind from his head, Albert dressed as a banana in a tiny bathtub or a photo of Albert edited to have blinking human eyes and glasses. He also has personalized merchandise: you can have a fist-sized model of Albert 3D-printed for only $25. Look thought of the figurine as an alternative to the T-shirts and mugs common in the “Instagram famous pet game,” she says.

    Many times, I felt like either the last sane person following Albert or completely alone in my bewilderment. Photos with sponsored captions as egregious as “Albert sending out #NewYearVibes in iMessage. Available in the App Store” prompted no public dissent, only comments ranging from “SO CUTE” to “Que lindo sos pequeno!!!😻😻😻❤❤❤.” Was every other Albert follower along for the ride? Was this cat’s cuteness enough to distract everyone from his product placement? Obviously, this cat cannot send vibes to anyone via any app. That feeling of absurdity was heightened by the fact that Apple had paid to advertise its standard text messaging service, one that sometimes handles up to 200,000 messages in a second, through a munchkin cat’s Instagram account.

    Not all the fans appreciate the cat’s corporate interests, though. Look says she gets pushback from his followers, usually things like “Albert’s a sellout!” Likewise, the Trump endorsement generated an outcry. Look and Menaka ignore it easily. “Any time you put in ads or something, people don’t like that. Everybody just expects free content,” Look explains. “It’s kind of like they think you’re their friend.” When their “friend” Albert starts trying to sell them things, followers can get upset. But expecting free content isn’t how things work anymore, Look suggests. That’s the beauty of Albert’s fanbase, to his owners and his corporate partners: “they’re all consumers,” she says. Other pushback includes concerns about his health, but Look says followers with problems misunderstand the munchkin breed. “I think if bred properly, there’s no problem. He can jump and play like a regular cat. He runs really fast,” she says, but Albert is certainly bred for cuteness over practicality or survival.

    To me, Albert seems like the logical (albeit insane) endgame of capitalism – monetizing all of our actions, including pet ownership and leisure time. There is no profit motive for dignity (or for saying no to a deal with Trump Hotels). Consumerism is becoming more intimate – you can speak directly to the brand, person or cat of your choice – and still more guarded. The anonymity of the early internet, where no one would know if you were a dog, is gone, replaced with carefully groomed and maintained public personas, like Albert. Clearly, his followers feel personally attached to him. “Hi sweetie,” one said to a photo of him looking into the camera warily. Maybe that’s why Look has such big dreams for him. “We want him to be in the movies,” she said to me with complete sincerity, “blockbuster movies with big movie stars like Daniel Craig.” Fame can be fickle in the internet age, but Look’s already succeeded at building cute pictures of her cat into a full-time job. Maybe we’ll see him on the red carpet, or on the streets of Chicago soon.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.