In a world where only the shocking, salacious and downright scandalous get airtime, it’s easy to see why people believe that’s what they need to get attention. But somewhere, we need to draw a line.
Let’s use PETA as an example.
The animal-rights group recently sent an “open letter” to the organizers of the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York, begging them to bar pregnant women from participating in the event because “the sons of pregnant women who consume chicken are more likely to have smaller penises because of a chemical found in the birds’ flesh.”
This kind of behavior has become de rigueur for the organization. When PETA wanted to promote veganism as a means of weight loss, they sponsored billboards with what appears to be a chubby woman in a bikini tagged with the phrase “Save the Whales! Lose the Blubber: Go vegan.” Yes, because a great way to incite passion about animal cruelty is by cruelly mocking fat women.
And when PETA wanted to talk about the horrors of animal cruelty, they took it upon themselves to compare the state of our factory farming system to what?
That’s right, because animals are not merely comparable to humans, but their consumption is somehow equivalent to mass genocide, the eradication of entire familial bloodlines and the social and political implications of both, short-term and long term.
And yes, the same PETA that operates an actual dog-killing shelter – for whatever reason – compared the selling of dogs to the selling of black American slaves.
Campaign after campaign after campaign features scantily-clad women, women covered in Swiss chard and romaine and hot peppers, naked women, x-ray visioned women, blondes, brunettes, women who’ve apparently “had the bottom knocked out of them”… women, women, women. Mind you, Waka Flocka Flame has appeared [seemingly] nude in a campaign, but we should compare this image to this one. And this one. And this one.
And… well, you get the picture.
PETA does some good work. PETA creates veganism starter kits to provide individuals curious about veganism for free. PETA creates media educating people on how to bake without using animal products. The organization remains on top of food safety policy and alerts the public to any efforts by Big Food to keep us in the dark.
But how privileged and out of touch are you, how bereft of diversity, how patriarchal are you that these are the methods you use to bring awareness to a public that is already tired of your shit? Why isn’t the good that you do enough?
BlissTree's Hanna Brooks Olsen asked PETA’s campaign director Lindsay Rajt these very questions. Her response is unsurprising:
Over time, we’ve learned that these provocative and controversial campaigns tend to get picked up a lot more, and tend to get talked about a lot more. They’re a lot more memorable, and, you know, these days, everyone is receiving so many impressions each day, we want to make sure we’re one that they remember.
In other words, they’re trolling… because it works.
Something about an ad campaign that turns women into pretty props, naked means to a noble end apparently endears us more to broccoli than simply talking about what the broccoli can do for you.
While the public can shoulder the blame – myself included, for writing on it, I suppose – for taking the bait every time, we cannot forget the concept of integrity. There are animal rights organizations that do the work of awareness, education and support without reducing their outreach down to the lazy marketing trope of “sex sells.” Why? Because animal cruelty, on its own, is shocking enough without throwing the boobs or bigotry into it.
When PETA uses comparisons of the Holocaust or the transatlantic slave trade to make people look at cruelty, it ignores a long history of devaluing both blacks and Jews by calling them animals, implying that they need colonialists to “tame” and “train” then. It ignores a history of implying that both groups were just as disposable as animals. It plays on a trope that society hasn’t yet escaped, as evidenced by our politicians referring to our current President as various kinds of animal, instead of the leader of our country.
When an organization like PETA, with a worthy cause, uses sex – or the threat of small penises, god forbid – to get you to pay attention, it implies that the cruelty on its own isn’t enough to make anyone care. Instead of simply taking the steps necessary to make a stand about what’s going on with our food and how wrong it may be, they play “bait and switch” – they want your attention, and they know that breasts are the best way to do it. It’s at the point, now, where PETA may not even care whether or not their ads are approved; even the rejection of the ads is enough for coverage.
PETA makes life harder for all the other animal cruelty organizations out there. People are so used to rolling their eyes at PETA in the name of animal cruelty, they roll their eyes at animal cruelty, period.
People who consider themselves activists in the interests of health, food safety, and animal cruelty are largely calling for integrity: some semblance of transparency, morals, and ethical behavior. PETA’s antics are, by and large, devoid of these.
When you’re calling for greater integrity in the treatment of animals, you should at least have some integrity, yourself. Where do we draw the line? Perhaps we should start there.