The shameless commercialization of ‘Tara the Hero Cat’


Tara is held by owner Roger Triantafilo. (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)

A week ago, “Tara the Hero Cat” was just a rescue pet living the good life in Bakersfield, Calif. Now she has a Web site, a Twitter account and a Facebook page. She has an agent with the viral video firm Jukin Media. She even has — and this is weird — stretchy black yoga pants emblazoned with her name. They retail for the low price of $31.99.

Tara the Hero Cat, it turns out, is no longer a mere hero. She’s an entire brand. Welcome to memedom in 2014, where everything — even the brutal, on-camera mauling of your child! — doubles as a chance for fame and profit. Case in point: Within 12 hours of the video going online of Tara saving 4-year-old Jeremy Triantafilo from a vicious dog, the cat’s keepers, the Triantafilo family, had launched a Facebook fan page.

“It doesn’t take much to create a Facebook page,” explained Mike Skogmo, the communications director at Jukin Media, “so to be prepared in the event that the video would generate interest makes a lot of sense.”

It does make sense. Business sense, at least. Tara’s story is not particularly unusual, as far as such stories go. Anyone watching the video can recognize that unusual mix of shock value and emotions that, when combined, become explosive.

As Skogmo put it, the clip was self-evidently “amazing,” even before it went viral. So, Tara’s quick ascent to stardom was fairly predictable: After the Triantafilos uploaded the video to Youtube on May 14, it spread to local news stations, which sparked posts on Reddit and Twitter. The social media chatter led to coverage on Gawker, Huffington Post and other news sites. By the next morning, Tara was on “Good Morning America,” and her video had — in fewer than 24 hours — been watched well over 1 million times.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: Even as Tara the Cat was courting the traditional media, her owners were deftly crafting her online image. On May 14, the same day the video published, the Triantafilos had already made Tara an official Facebook fan page. (Facebook says the page was started on May 13, but the Triantafilos sent The Washington Post charts from the site’s admin dashboard that show it actually launched the day after.) On May 18, the family registered the Web site taratheherocat.com. By May 19, Tara had a logo and a Twitter profile, where “she” tweets — among other things — somewhat forced jokes about herself. She has become, in essence, a case study in viral sensations trying to draw out their 15 minutes of fame.

After all, fame — even the virtual kind — pays pretty well. On top of the tens of thousands of dollars of ad revenue viral video-makers can potentially earn through YouTube, there’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to meme merchandize: Grumpy Cat has plush animals and a line of coffees; David After Dentist has T-shirts; even the creator of Feminist Ryan Gosling got a book deal.

Ron Hashim, a representative of the Triantafilos, refused to say how much money, if any, the family is making from such revenue streams. He did say it was “all for Jeremy,” aside from a portion they planned to donate to charity. (Hashim — a marketer and IT consultant — lists Facebook, online advertising and ecommerce among his professional skills.)

Maybe this all sounds cynical. After all, why wouldn’t someone want to hang on to a sudden stroke of fame? But there seems to be, to me at least, an obvious difference between selling T-shirts of a cat with a cranky-looking face and selling T-shirts of a cat famous for an attack that ended with a 4-year-old getting stitches.

In either case, Tara the Cat T-shirts (… and beach totes, and gym bags, and footed pajamas…) are available for your purchase and/or derision. Snap them up now before another meme comes along and makes the Hero Cat irrelevant.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 21, 2014