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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Kelly

The Case for PETA's Offensive Advertising

Caveat before we begin: I'm vegan.

And yes, I had to tell you within the first two seconds of meeting you.

I believe animal lives and human lives have equal value, and we need comprehensive societal and systemic changes to raise the quality of life for all beings.

I also work in advertising. And this morning these two interests collided when I woke up to text conversation from a couple advertising friends about… yes, an ad.

The commercial in question was PETA’s latest spot banned from the Super Bowl.

If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

The friend (and former co-worker) who sent the link wanted to talk about how it could be seen as offensive.

And, yes. I can see how the spot could be taken offensively on a few fronts.

There are, of course, a select group of people triggered by animal welfare content in general. Most of these people are meat-eaters who feel their way of life and way of thinking about animals is under attack when they see PETA’s content. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to sway aggressively staunch believers.

The next group of people are largely more liberally-minded people who take offensive to the ad for drawing a comparison between the animal rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Similar to how “All Lives Matter” harms the Black Lives Matter cause with a lack of direction and too broad a message, it’s understandable that broadening farther to “All Species Matter” could further muddy the message.

Another criticism is that, on the whole, comparing people to animals is generally unacceptable. Drawing a comparison between animals to Colin Kaepernick, a member of a minority ethnic group that has historically faced (and continues to face) comparisons and slurs meant to degrade can come across especially tone-deaf.

All of these concerns are valid.

And to be frank, some of these arguments make me uncomfortable by the spot too.

But because it makes us uncomfortable, we’re talking about it.

Or…texting about it at the very least.

Now, I wasn’t in the room when this concept was developed. But I like to think the creative team behind the PETA spot knew more than we’re giving them credit for.

This spot is meant to trigger people.

It toes a line (in different ways) for both typically conservative and typically liberal audiences.

The concept of animal life and human lives being equal is so foreign to people. Making a PR play to get people talking is a swing big approach to get people talking.

Some feel like PETA’s marketing tactics are too aggressive. That PETA should abide by the you “catch more flies with honey” approach. (Or should I say vegan honey?) But groups like The Humane Society and the ASPCA are already coming at the Animal Welfare cause with a tamer approach. And historically, social causes are sustained by having both a radical branch, and a sect that’s more welcoming. The first draws media attention and often introduces the cause to people. The second brings in allies by making the cause relatable. Consider the different approaches that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. took to the Civil Rights Movement.

Both are necessary in different ways.

PETA has traditionally taken the “no press is bad press” approach. This isn’t the first Super Bowl spot that PETA’s had blocked. Previous spots have featured messages like the sexually charged “Vegans last longer." Their ads on social frequently get blocked or have content warnings because of their exposé style of animals in factory farms.

While other groups go for cute animal faces, they go for shock value.

And who’s to say that’s not an appropriate approach?

It got my text chain talking about it. And people on Twitter too.

I’d venture to guess they wouldn’t have made the ad if it hadn’t gotten blocked. If it hadn’t crossed a line. If the animated bald eagle taking a knee hadn’t rumpled a few feathers.

As an advertising creative, I consider what I would do to “fix” this ad to make it less offensive. Perhaps instead of showing animals bending the knee, we show the faces of the activists out there doing work like Kaepernick for the animal welfare cause. The people risking jobs, or jail time to make a statement. The animal rights activist version of “taking a knee”.

But would that have made such an impact?

My gut tells me no.

As someone still relatively new in their advertising career, creating advertising specifically not to please is a concept I’m still wrapping my head around. People already try to avoid ads where they can: skip them, block them, pay to remove them. Why would you want to further infuriate people?

The answer: to get people talking.

I’m coming to realize there’s a place for all kinds of approaches to a social cause and the marketing related to bringing people over to that cause.

And we’re not always going to like it.

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