In May of 1999, a commercial would debut on Canadian television that against all odds, would become part of the Canadian consciousness. The commercial, which was produced by Concerned Children’s Advertisers, would bring introduce the idea of a House Hippo to Canadian culture.
The one minute long commercial, which was the subject of a television public service announcement, was produced in the style of Hinterland Who’s Who, the Canadian educational series that ran in the 1960s and 1970s. It describes the House Hippo as being found across Canada and in parts of the eastern United States, while showing the creature in a typical Canadian home.
The commercial was created in order to educate children about critical thinking, to teach them not to accept everything that they see on television and to question what they see.
The creation of the House Hippo came about through a lightning bolt moment according to Siobhan Dempsey, one of the writers of the PSA. She would say quote:
“I think Malcolm Roberts said how about a tiny animal that lives in your house? He had a 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.”
Ironically, many of the young children who saw the commercial believed that house hippos were real, based on this commercial. Before long, its fate as a Canadian icon was sealed, something that surprised Dempsey. She states quote:
“It’s shocking. 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 the 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.”
MediaSmart Executive Director Ann Hill would try and explain the obsession with the House Hippo as a combination of nostalgia and the cultural obsession with cute, small things. She would say quote:
“Why hippos? Why do we have a fondness for hippos? There’s something about them that’s cute. Its the idea of taking this giant, enormous creature and turning it into something really cute and small. It’s just light-hearted and fun and uniquely Canadian. It is a wonderful way to communicate a serious message.”
Twenty years after the House Hippo debuted on television screens, it would return once again to focus on media literacy and questioning what is shared on social media, specifically, Facebook. It was released as part of a campaign called Break the Fake.
With Canadians seeing the House Hippo as a nostalgic piece of Canadiana, the choice was made to use the hippo again to remind Canadians to question what they see not only on television but the internet. A new commercial was also created, mimicking the format and tone of the previous commercial from 1999.
For Canadians, the House Hippo is such an important part of their childhood and youth that Facebook groups have been created that show people finding their house hippo and putting up pictures of a small hippo ornament or toy, sometimes bedazzled, in various places in their home. The House Hippo has also inspired TikToks, it has a page on Urban Dictionary and there is even a band called House Hippo that honours the animal that we all loved, and all hoped was real enough to find in our own homes.
You can even by hand-made House Hippos, house hippo art prints, t-shirts and much more.
Possibly one of the weirdest things to do with the House Hippo that I found was a series of classified ads that were printed in the Whitehorse Daily Star in October and November 2002, which stated, quote:
“Looking for a male house hippo, eight months to one year to breed with my female house hippo.”
The little House Hippo was certainly the little creature that could, and did, engrain itself into Canadian culture.
Information from CBC, Wikipedia, Fresh Daily,