People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gets a lot of attention with its outrageous advertising. Every time the organisation comes out with a new ad, I see numerous people commenting on it, arguing about it, discussing it. It’s unafraid to exercise pretty much every -ism in the book in its advertising, whether it’s telling people to go vegetarian so they won’t turn into fat whales, or comparing Black women to animals. It’s pretty safe to say at this point that if it’s a PETA ad, it’s offensive.
Clearly, the organisation is doing this deliberately. I think most people recognise this at this point. These ads are supposed to be ‘provocative.’ PETA is choosing to ‘go against the PC tide’ in their ads. They put a lot of thought into how they present themselves and they want to be ‘edgy,’ but above all, they want to spark discussion and debate, particularly in progressive communities, where the jump from ‘caring about progressive issues’ to ‘addressing animal welfare’ is a pretty logical extension.
The question is, why do people keep taking the bait? What would happen, in other words, if PETA threw an ad and nobody came? If PETA came up with another pile of offensive schlock designed to bait people, and people didn’t rise? If they released an ad and it wasn’t promptly circulated on every progressive site in the universe by people who want to tear it apart?
People criticise PETA ads endlessly because they say it’s important to call the organisation out and challenge the offensive material and force the organisation to rethink its strategy. This is not working because the organisation’s strategy very clearly is to offend people. PETA wants progressives to see its ads, get angry, and talk about them. It’s hardly a novel advertising strategy, but it seems to be working very well. People are responding to these ads and they’re proving the old saw about ‘no such thing as bad press’ to be painfully, clearly, obviously true.
If PETA released an ad with the usual offensive content and met with silence from the progressive community, it would have to rethink its strategy. Especially if it did it again and people still didn’t rise. The way to make PETA rethink the way they approach animal welfare issues is not by screaming at them. It’s by ignoring them. You want to show them their offensive ads don’t work? Don’t respond to them.
I guarantee you that, faced with a boycott on responding to their ads, the organisation would have to seriously reconsider its current branding and advertising strategy. And you would see some actual change in their work and a shift in focus from trying to offend people to trying to actually reach people. And I say this as an animal welfare advocate who used to belong to PETA, and left the organisation when I grew disgusted with the shift in their tactics.
I often get asked to comment on PETA ads by people who seem surprised that, as someone who is pretty attentive about media, pop culture, and everything else, I remain silent on PETA’s tactics. I don’t say anything because there’s nothing to say. I don’t say anything because we all know that their methods are offensive, and surely I am not the only one who realises that this is the point. PETA wants to make you angry, and judging from the outrage that flares up every time they come up with a new ad, it’s working.
People say that these ads create a backlash; certainly on almost every comment thread I see about new horrors from PETA, there’s someone trotting out with the ‘this ad makes me want to go home and eat a lot of BACON’ line, like it’s original and funny. People say the ads are not effective because they alienate people from the animal rights movement and cause people to kneejerk the other way in response, to eat more meat, say. And these arguments are certainly true if you look at the ads on a superficial level.
But if you go deeper and see the amount of free publicity PETA gets every time progressives get all riled up about their ads, you see a different story. You see a very successful media powerhouse, an organisation that is very conscious about the demographic it wants to target and is, as far as I can see, doing a terrific job at it. You might not like it, but these are the facts; this is how PETA operates, and it is working. Every time you get outraged about a PETA ad and say so, you are doing exactly what they want you to do.
So, what if PETA threw an ad and nobody came? What if we collectively agreed, as a community, that we were going to ignore the next ad the organisation puts out, and the next? What if we decided that rather than dignifying an ad clearly intended to offend with a response, that we would give it the cold shoulder? Do you think PETA might be forced to adjust their strategy?
Because I think they would. The image of a radical, edgy animal rights organisation that ‘cares more about animals than people’ is a lot harder to keep up when no one is talking about you, when people collectively pretend you don’t exist. That flashy advertising doesn’t count for so much when no one responds to it and people make a conscious choice to move on to other topics of greater interest.
Topics like, say, improving living conditions for farm animals.