Just Like Family with Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson

Our guest this week is Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson, the author of Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined The Household. Andrea explains why a majority of pet owners regard their animals as members of the family and suggests how pet product manufacturers and marketers should approach the emergence of the “multispecies family.” Andrea uses contemporary advertisements to illustrate how dogs and cats are increasingly identified and treated as legitimate members of the household.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Family is changing and that we are increasingly as a culture accepting this idea that there are multi-species families where the dog and the cat aren’t just pets anymore. They aren’t just kind of accepted into the family fold. They literally are family members now. 

Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS: fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, chief strategy officer at Bigeye. Thank you for joining us today. May 2021 polling data from the American Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that close to one in five households had acquired a dog or cat since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. According to the ASPCA data, families who’d been debating pet ownership and individuals looking for companionship during lockdowns represent approximately 23 million American households that had the time and opportunity to welcome a new pet. Worth an estimated $189 billion in 2021, the pet care category is a fast-growing industry in the United States. In 2020, Americans purchased $42 billion of pet food, and veterinary care brought in over $31 billion. As a visit to any big box pet store reveals, there are plenty of ways to indulge our animal companions with a majority of owners in the US spending up to $500 on their pets each year. A book entitled Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household examines how and why pets have become so integral to families in America. The book provides a compelling view of domestic animals as part of what the author, Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson, defines as the “multi-species family” in which dogs and cats are identified and treated as legitimate members of the household. In the book, Dr. Laurent-Simpson highlights the many roles pets play in people’s lives: as siblings to human children, as animal children, themselves, and even as grandchildren. Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson is a Research Assistant Professor and Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She’s joining us today from her home north of Dallas to discuss the book and the central idea of the multi-species family. Andrea, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Thank you, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: Could you explain what sociology is and how it differs from psychology?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Sure. I always think about the micro versus macro influences. So when I think about psychology, which was actually my bachelor’s degree, I think about individual kind of mental level processes, and maybe individual interaction with groups, but nothing any further than that in terms of structure. Whereas sociology focuses on more macro features. So thinking about social structures and society and the ways that humans kind of interact within that situation, and also the ways in which people socially construct the different parts of society like institutions and communities and organizations.

Adrian Tennant: So what prompted you to write Just Like Family?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: So the introduction in my book talks about this, so that would be my dog, my first dog as an adult anyway, was a Chow Chow named Chewbacca Bear and she came into my life when I was probably 20 years old, maybe 19, and she really was my means of giving me some interaction as I lived on my own in an apartment and stress relief, I guess as I went through the undergraduate process. But when I met my husband or my future husband, he and I really bonded over her and we wound up kind of creating a little family and that family just intensified and intensified the further along he and I went and as we got married and, put off having human children, we really kind of turned all of that attention towards her. And at the time I wasn’t really aware that we were doing that. I didn’t think about it in terms of treating her like a child. It just came very naturally to us and so, around the time that I found out that she was 10 and I found out that she had lymphoma and she was like stage three lymphoma. I went through a series of visits with different veterinarians and specialists and oncologists kind of in complete denial about it until I landed at Texas A&M Veterinary School, where we kind of went back and forth, this resident and I went back and forth about her diagnosis and I realized that talking about these things in front of her was something that was disturbing to me. In front of the dog that is, in front of Chew Bear. And so I asked them to take her out of the room and I finished up that meeting with the oncologist and when I got in the car, the sociological piece of me after 10 years finally kicked in and said, “What just happened? You literally had your dog removed from the room as if she could understand these things that you were talking about.” And my brain said, “yes, she could. She could understand all of that. And these all have massive repercussions for her life and our lives.” And I think I just took off from there, in building the idea in my head and thinking about whether or not I was the only person that might be interacting with their dog or cat like this. And eventually, it turned into at least a piece of it turned into my dissertation for my doctoral work. And then I expanded from there into some other things with it and continue to expand on it now.

Adrian Tennant: Just Like Family is about what you define as the multi-species family. Could you explain your hypothesis?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Sure. So I guess it helps to explain what a multi-species family is in the first place. A multi-species family, at least I would say currently in a post-industrialized, high-income nation, like the United States, is a family that has not just human members, but non-human members as well and identifies those non-human animals as family. When you look at the research, primarily, at least for now that tends to be dogs and cats. There are not as many people identifying Guinea pigs and snakes and tarantulas, right, as family. So the dogs and the cats would be like a primary part of that. And the multi-species family that we see today, is one that is marked not just by having this pet in the family or even just thinking of the pet as family. It’s actually literally identifying the pet as a family member and treating him or her in that way. So identifying the dog or the cat as a sibling to your own children or identifying the dog or cat as a child to you, or that extended family piece, again, thinking of your adult children’s pets as granddogs or grandcats. I keep reinforcing the idea of contemporary, post-industrialized, high-income countries like the US, because some researchers and I’m included in this would say that multi-species families have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. It’s not so much that the multi-species family is new. It’s the incantation of it that’s very new.

Adrian Tennant: Your book discusses the many different roles that pets play in people’s lives. For example, as siblings to human children and as children or “fur babies” among child-free or childless couples. In the book, you recount a story from your personal experience when your dog was treated like a grandchild. Could you tell us more about that?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Sure. So I talked about Chew Bear a few minutes ago, but my husband and I were dating and clearly very committed to each other and became engaged. His mother, so in the book, I referred to her as Famoo because she’s Finnish. And so Famoo was very, very fond of Chew Bear and loved the way that we interacted with her and kind of accepted her as a primary family member. And so she engaged in that as well. She was very willing to babysit Chew Bear. She was willing to cook natural foods for Chew Bear. She was willing to, which is phenomenal to me, get on an airplane with us when we moved to Los Angeles, literally so she could take care of Chew Bear while we went and looked at different apartments and help us apartment hunt in order to find places that would be adequate for the three of us, not just Mark and I, but Mark and I and Chew Bear. And this, this wasn’t just these kinds of things, it was little things too. Talking to Chew Bear like she was her granddaughter and talking about Chew Bear as if she were a granddaughter to other people, to her friends, like outside of our family circle, talking to her friends and showing her friends pictures of Chew Bear. And these are all behavioral elements that kept popping up in my own participants, especially the child-free and involuntarily childless participants, really recounted a lot of similar activities where their parents would invoke this idea of grandparent and treat their animals in that way. Famoo had a really special connection with Chew Bear too, so it wasn’t just grandchild in name, it was grandchild in behavior. She would often talk about how she loved Chew Bear more as a grandchild than she loved some of her other human grandchildren, which obviously were not our children, so it’s okay. She had a very special connection with her and I had fun writing about some of that and I saw it replicated with other people as well. So I’ll add one more thing to that. I think that the key piece for me thinking about this sociologically, Famoo’s involvement wasn’t just sweet to watch. It was also very much so reinforcing of my own behavior and of my husband Mark’s behavior in treating her like a child. So the more that Famoo thought about and treated Chew Bear as if she were a grandchild or one of our kids, the more Mark and I were motivated to continue treating her that way. We didn’t feel stigmatized by it. We didn’t feel embarrassed by it. We felt supported in it. And again, that was something else that I saw replicated again and again, for people who really found value in their own parents supporting their ideas about their dogs and cats being like children to them, was really important. And when that support was not there, it was painfully evident in my participants’ narratives as well.

Adrian Tennant: Chapter five of Just Like Family focuses on how mass media has embraced the concept of the multi-species family. You describe your findings from a qualitative review of a series of print advertisements spanning roughly two decades. Now there’s a lot in this chapter of interest to pet care brand marketers and advertisers, so let’s start with the ways in which animals are depicted. Andrea, to what extent did you find animals in ads had human traits applied to them?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: I would say that, especially over even the past 30 years, definitely the past 20, but over the past 30 years, companion animals have increasingly been anthropomorphized, in ads, not only in the images but also in the copy. In terms of anthropomorphization, that is kind of giving these human traits to animals, I think that that’s something advertisers have done for a really long time. You know, I think about like Joe Camel, right? The depiction of the tough, like Navy man smoking cigarettes. Well, you know, they used a camel to depict that and it was a very, very, effective marketing tactic. Right? That spoke to masculinity in the United States. So I think that that’s not new at all. I think that the anthropomorphization of dogs and cats into actual family members, actual social actors is a different level than simply applying human traits. So that as I pulled these ads and analyzed them, yeah, definitely they were applying these traits of, I guess maybe dressing an animal like a person or maybe, having the animal held like you might hold a child. Like one ad stands out in my mind. You can just, it’s a woman and you just see the back of her head and body. And the dog is upon her shoulder peering back at the camera, right? So obviously that’s anthropomorphic, right? Applying emotions so you have copy where there’s a word bubble and the dog says, “Oh, I’m so happy!” Right? Those things we’re applying human traits, but it’s when we get into ads that are very specifically kind of replicating particular identities like the child, right? So the dog looking over, peering back at the camera as if it’s a child – or he or she is a child – or having copy that gives words to the dog or cat like, “Hey mom, we love this dog food!” Things like that are, they’re stepping a little bit more into the realm of actually depicting the dog and the cat as, as a social actor, number one. Number two: a social actor that communicates effectively with their human. Not just through a bark or a meow, they’re actually using language to communicate with their human, and that are, number three, actually aware of and involved in creating very intimate bonds, familial bonds with their parents or their pet parents, right? So when I think about this mother-child relationship, one ad that pops up for me the copy is really informative. It’s a woman who’s out running and she’s got her Siberian Husky with her. And the copy says, “Bella is part of my family.” Okay. So maybe a general family member. But then she goes on to say, “I believe her happiness and health come before anything else.” So, the copy in that is really telling it’s not just that the animal is like family to me. It’s actually that “the animal is like family to me and more she’s like a child to me.” Because they are invoking kind of this verbiage, this intensive mothering verbiage about your children always coming first. Her happiness, her health comes before anything else. And so this particular ad is advertising Natural Balance dog food. 

So it’s a dietary thing. Verbiage like that, copy like that symbolically communicates, I think on the advertisers’ end, that family is changing and that we are, increasingly as a culture, accepting this idea that there are multi-species families where the dog and the cat aren’t just pets anymore. They aren’t just kind of accepted into the family fold. They literally are family members now, like a child, grandchild, or a sibling, or whatever it happens to be.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson, a Research Assistant Professor and Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University and the author of the book, Just Like Family, published by New York University Press. The pet care category is a growing multi-billion dollar industry in the US. Andrea, in your research, did you come across any pet-related products or services that you’d never seen before, or that struck you as particularly interesting?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Yes. I mean, they’re not, they’re not strange to me anymore, but as I was initially doing the research, coming across products like dog seat belts was something that was interesting to me. Strollers? I’d seen strollers before. What I had not seen was double strollers. So, you know, we have double strollers for twins or kids that are similar ages, but these were double strollers for dogs. And probably the one that stands out the most to me was the high chair. So Ikea, there’s a really neat ad from Ikea. 

And we could sit here and analyze this ad together for hours, it’s so fascinating to me. But there’s an Ikea ad with a blue high chair in it. And there is a Labrador, a golden lab sitting up in the high chair, eating, there’s two bowls kind of recess down on the highchair, eating from the bowls. And the copy is interesting to me. The copy actually refers to the dogs, as family, right? So dinner time is when the family comes together. So it makes sense to include the family’s best friend. So it’s interesting, the copy, right? That it refers to the dog that’s in the high chair as a family’s best friend. And then it also later on in the copy refers to the dog as a dinner guest. These feel very fuzzy to me. They don’t feel like solidly family, right? They sound like visitor. Here’s a visitor. When this visitor comes, put them in this high chair at your table. It’s the image though that’s the most striking and really the copy is almost like it’s not an afterthought. It’s very carefully crafted, but it’s not what stands out in this ad. What stands out is that bright blue high chair, bright silver, or shiny silver bowls in it, and that beautiful golden lab sitting in it. And all you see, looking at it, is a child. A best friend doesn’t come to a house and get put in a high chair. You don’t buy a high chair for your best friend’s baby, right? You buy a high chair for a baby that’s in your household and then you utilize it to have them at the table with the family. They’re not separate from the family, sitting, or anything like it, they’re sitting there at the table with the family. They’re one of the family. and so I think that that particular ad and, and the high chair being advertised, and it was really interesting to me. And I think too, I will add this. I think too, that the reason the copy seems a little counter to what the image is because families today, even though this idea of a multi-species family, even though that is becoming more accepted, I think it’s still stigmatized. So looking at that copy, I think that that was probably the advertiser’s way of walking that line real finely and saying to the consumer that doesn’t buy into this, “Hey, we’re not trying to say anything about, we’re not trying to say that this dog’s a child”, but then also with that image that really stands out saying, “Hey, you guys that see your dog as your child? Look at this product that we have for you!” so it’s really interesting to me, just the line walking, very careful psychological kind of analysis that went into that particular ad.

Adrian Tennant: So I’m curious, Andrea, are there any human and product categories that you think are untapped opportunities for pet product manufacturers?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: I think Adrian, that that is a million-dollar question! I think that that’s something that if I could come up with the answer to, I maybe might quit my job and go into pet product innovation. But what I would say from a sociological perspective is that there are particular, I guess categories in terms of family and household structure that advertisers need to pay attention to. They need to think about not just the multi-species family with a dog and a cat and whether or not they have a dog or they have a cat, but they need to think about the household structure. So are we like targeting multi-species families with human children? Multi-species families who are child-free, or involuntarily childless? Are we targeting empty nesters? Like who are we targeting? Because in my own research, each one of those household structures had different perceptions and different internalized identities, related to their dogs and cats. So that the family without human children, you could very much so see this kind of parent-child identity pairing present. Sometimes they were aware of it. Sometimes they were not. Like me, if you had interviewed me 10 years, 15 years ago with Chew Bear, I wouldn’t have been aware of it. But right, that parent-child identity pairing or like with the empty-nester, there’s the grandparent-grandchild identity pairing, or with the family that has human children, there is this identity pairing of sibling-sibling, and sometimes like best friends kind of thing that they see in their own children with the family dog or cat. And so that would be the first part of this right? In trying to figure out what else could we do? I mean, because obviously innovating products from the ground up, I think that’s probably fairly rare. I think that most products come from extensions of products we’ve already got on the market. and so looking at those family structures and thinking about the identities that are present within each multi-species family structure is important because you can figure out what the varying needs are based on the family structure. So for me, I have human children now and I’ve got my three German Shorthair Pointers, and I would absolutely love to have a product- I have no clue what it would look like- but I would love to have a product that would really help me cut down on dirt, even more at the entries to my home. Right now, what we’ve got is towels and these innovative pet product cups where you dip their feet. Like they’ve got these little teethy things inside their silicone, you dip their feet down in there in the silicone, but those are disgusting and messy and the dogs are always turning them over. So, you know, something like that would probably be more important to a family with human children and their dogs and dogs in particular. Because I’ve got double the mess coming through the door every time my two-legged and four-legged children walk in, right? Whereas a child-free family, maybe, yes, obviously they want to make sure that their floors are staying clean, but they don’t have double the mess. So maybe it’s not as big of a concern right? So thinking, along the lines of travel. Child-free families travel a lot. They spend a lot of, well at least middle-class and upper-class professional families are traveling a lot and they wanna take their pets with them. So focusing more on that family structure, the identities that are present there, I want to travel with my kid, my pet, my fur baby. I wanna take my baby with me. So what can we do to kind of improve upon some of the products that are available now to help them travel better? So taking like that family who is child-free and paralleling them with the family that has human children. What are the children’s products that are out there right now? And for travel, for example, what do we have for kids that ease parents’ burden? I’ll say that lightly! When you travel with kids, what do they have for kids that we could extend upon and expand upon for child-free families that want to travel with their pets, with their dogs and cats? So that’s part of it. The other part of it is thinking generationally, which I know that advertisers are well aware of, right? But today, millennials comprise 35% of all pet owners. They have just recently become the biggest pet-owning category percentage-wise in the US. So they’re a really important group to pay attention to. When we look at research on real estate and property purchases, a third of millennials have reported actually purchasing a home for their dog. And in that research, the survey questions ask them to rank, “Why have you purchased a home?” And purchasing a home, percentage-wise, for the dog was number one. Under that came just got married, I have a spouse, we want a home. And then after that was, we’re gonna have kids or we have kids. The dog for a third of them was number one. This is a really important piece to pay attention to when people are purchasing their homes, when millennials, and this is only getting more intense with Gen Z, and moving forward, I think they’re just gonna get more and more intense because fertility rates are dropping and as fertility rates drop, obviously this means that there are fewer children entering the population. And the question, interesting research question to me is are people feeling kind of a need to nurture if they’re not gonna have children, human children, whether that’s because they don’t wanna add the population growth or they’re not able to have human children or human children just gross them out- whatever the reason is if they’re not having children, I am wondering if we are, with a desire to nurture, we are filling that with bringing more and more dogs and cats into our lives. And part of some future research I’d like to do is really kind of examining that and trying to figure out what increasing levels of dog and cat ownership and multi-species families, where the dog’s a child, like almost a bonafide child in the family, if that’s reinforcing falling fertility rates not causing it, but reinforcing it. Thinking about things like that as an advertiser, being able to kind of foresee those trends coming, I, I think is the bread and butter of advertising and marketing, right? But I think really having a clear-cut understanding, for example, that rental properties, that home builders are now designing their either rental properties or they’re designing the houses they sell to answer to pet parents. Like, “Oh, look at this perk. Look at this thing we could build into your house. We could have a whole, pet bathing area back here instead of a mudroom.” like a traditional mudroom where the kids come in and throw all their garbage on the floor. You tell I’ve got children. We instead have, you know, this nice kind of bathing area, for your dog to bring in and spray them off and get them ready to enter the rest of the house. Thinking about things like that and understanding how these different household structures see their animals and the way that they interact with the family will be the best way to figure out new extensions, really on human categories of products.

Adrian Tennant: In the book, you cite some previous research studies, some of which have found differences between how dog owners view their pets compared to cat owners. Having reviewed almost two decades’ worth of ads, what are some important considerations you’d highlight for marketers seeking to appeal to dog or cat owners?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Well, the research in the past, that I’ve looked at, so from Harris poll and American Pet Products Association, even the AVMA obviously shows dogs and cats with this special family status applied to them. It seems to show dogs as having a greater likelihood of having the status applied to them but cats, cats do too. Cats aren’t so far off of dogs that we should just write them off as bonafide members of the multi-species family in the US. Dogs in particular, it seems, are privileged with things like birthday presents, holiday celebrations, especially things in my mind that I think of as very social, like a birthday celebration is a very social activity. And when you think about the ways that dogs and humans interact with each other, they’re very social. If you think about the way that they kind of evolved and that evolutionary niche, the reason they evolved alongside one another, was because of that kind of increasing, intertwined social interaction that they had. It’s almost like the disposition of a canine is one that makes him or her very social to start with. But I really think that has a lot to do with evolution alongside humans, right? Whereas cats didn’t evolve in the same way, right? They didn’t evolve right alongside the leg of a human or a hominid, an early hominid. They kind of evolved as an independent isolated category of species. And today their personalities are very, so the domesticated cat, the personalities are very similar, right? Very independent, very aloof. And so it’s not unusual to me to see that maybe more social types of behaviors, going out with a dog, walking the dog, taking the dog to dog parks, that just kind of lines up with the way that humans have evolved alongside of dogs. It lines up with dog personality. Thinking about cats, things are a little bit different, right? People also report birthday celebrations. They also report including them in holiday celebrations and letting them co-sleep. Although cats co-sleep more than dogs do. I think probably of everything I looked at, that was the one thing where cats outranked dogs was co-sleeping. Nut again, I think that’s a personality thing. I think that has to do with the disposition of the feline, right? Is kind of claiming areas as their own. It doesn’t really matter what you say is theirs or isn’t theirs. They’re going to tell you what’s theirs, right? I mean, if this bed is their bed, then you may share it with them. It’s not your bed. It’s my feline bed. You may come sleep in it, if you would like, kind of thing, just a different disposition. And so, you know, looking at those ads, I think that if you are a marketer that is wanting to appeal to dog owners, you’ve gotta think about the household structure, and the identities that are present based on what the household structure is. But then you’ve got to think about the disposition of the dog. In your ads, you don’t wanna make the mistake and in your marketing plans, you don’t wanna make the mistake of portraying or depicting the dog in a way that owners are gonna be like, “Oh, I see through this, you don’t get it. You’re just trying to sell me something because if you weren’t just trying to sell me something, you really cared about me as a consumer, you would understand, not only is this dog like a child to me, but this dog has a specific personality. and it is one that maybe is outgoing and gregarious, or is very interested in being social all the time and being by my side. And in this ad, you’ve got this dog that you wanna market a pet product to me with, sitting off to the side while I sit forefront in the ad drinking my beer, right?” That you’re trying to sell me dog beer. And the dog’s like over here on the side or whatever it happens to be right? Now, if it were an ad that you were trying to sell cat beer, I don’t see a market for that right? Trying to parallel it with the same ad. If you were, if you were, trying to sell cat beer, then maybe that would be the way that you might kind of create that ad, right? Because the cat is aloof. And in fact, maybe what you would do there is put the cat in the forefront of that, and maybe put the human off to the side, drinking their beer. but it’s a personality thing, right? And I think that sometimes, and not just advertisers, but I think social scientists, I think researchers, anthropologists, sociologists, I think sometimes they miss that piece of it, right? If you are an advertiser and you are, or somebody that’s trying to innovate and then market new products or extensions on products, only thinking about the human side, the anthropocentric side of this is gonna get you into trouble. Now, it wouldn’t have gotten you into trouble 20, 30, 40 years ago, because I don’t think that this kind of post-industrialized, multi-species, high-income society had emerged yet. It was emerging, but I don’t think it was front and center the way it is now. You have to remove yourself from that anthropocentric focus, thinking of the human as the one that you’re selling this to, and really think of the dog and cat as a consumer and put that in your ads. You’ve got to think the same way you would a child, right? If you’re marketing games, if you’re Milton Bradley or Hasbro or whatever it is, you’ve done extensive research on children’s behavior, what games they like, the way they play with them, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, right? It’s the same thing with a dog and a cat. You’ve got to think about them as a consumer and the ways in which they demand, request, want, need, desire, and make sure it comes through in that ad. Because for the multi-species families that I’m describing today that are very, very emergent and becoming increasingly accepted in this millennial generation, to not do that will be insulting to the person who actually has the money, right? The person who actually lays that money down. You need to talk to my dog, right? Talk to my dog to have them talk to me. 

Adrian Tennant: Andrea if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, your academic work, and your book, Just Like Family, where can they find you?

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: They could find me on my email. ALaurentSimpson – so just “a” for Andrea, and then Laurent-Simpson @ smu.edu. Or they could also go to my website on academia.edu. So any of those ways would work.

Adrian Tennant: Andrea, thank you very much indeed for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Thank you, Adrian, for having me.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson of the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University and the author of the book, Just Like Family: how companion animals joined the household. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at Bigeyeagency.com under insights, just select podcast. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts, submit a review, or tell a friend about IN CLEAR FOCUS. It really helps us out. And thank you for listening. I’ve been your host Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye!

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