Case Study #5: PETA Denuded

By Lauren Dallow and Neetu Lakhan, 2018

Background

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was founded in 1980 (PETA, n.d.). Over the decades, PETA has grown into a global organization with millions of members, making it the largest animal rights organization in the world (n.d.). PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns (n.d.).

Committed to protecting the rights of animals, PETA believes that animals are not meant to be eaten, worn, experimented on, or used for entertainment (PETA, n.d.). These are the four areas where PETA believes that the most animals suffer and so they are the four areas where PETA focuses its attention (n.d.).

The Campaign

One of PETA’s earlier campaigns was the “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” campaign launched in 1991 (Rose, 2012). The purpose of this campaign was to use celebrity spokespeople to discourage the public from wearing leather, fur, and wool. The campaign is still going on and has featured such notable people as Pamela Anderson, Kourtney Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, and Olivia Munn, photographed naked with slogans added such as “Fur? I’d rather go naked” (Bousquet, 2017).

PETA tends to choose celebrities who are often viewed as sex symbols to pose for these images; a number of the celebrity spokespeople have been models or Playboy Playmates. One could infer that PETA subscribes to the advertising cliché that “sex sells,” as they use this strategy not just for their print public service announcements, but also for public protests (PETA, n.d.; Sheppard, 2014).

Criticisms

PETA has become well known for provocative naked or semi-naked campaigns and, even though it has garnered negative public reactions, PETA appears to feel that, even if people are complaining, at least they are talking about the issues. Nothing yet has discouraged PETA from using controversial images to deploy their message. In October, 2017, a graphic billboard went up in Detroit for a related campaign that featured R&B singer D∆WN naked with a section of her skin being torn off; the billboard reads “Leather is a rip-off” (PETA, 2017).

Of course, PETA’s strategy of using naked—often female—celebrities to pose for the “I’d Rather Be Naked” campaign has led to criticism that PETA is relying on sexist attitudes and the male gaze to draw attention to the cause (Pennington, 2013). Additionally, the images are argued to be dehumanizing the women featured in the images (Orbay-Cerrato, 2013). Yet, PETA stands by this strategy and continues to employ it, but the strategy does not actually seem that effective.

Analysis

While provocative ads are more likely to grab attention, the attention is short lived and viewers tend not to think critically about ads that feature sexual images (Reichert, Heckler, & Jackson, 2001). PETA’s ads in the “I’d Rather Be Naked” campaign feature minimal print and the naked images do not explain why PETA wants the public to be against wearing fur, wool, and leather. Therefore, viewers must go online and do their own research into the topic, which is unlikely if the image has little or no lasting effect (Reichert, Heckler, & Jackson, 2001).

The effectiveness of the current strategy employed by PETA for their campaigns becomes apparent when examining whether fur sales have been at all impacted in the time that PETA has been running the “I’d Rather Be Naked” campaign. From 2000–2010, global fur sales rose about 70% and annual sales of fur pelts reached $15-16 billion between 2010 – 2011 (Sauers, 2012). This is a painful indictment of the failure of PETA’s campaign. Additionally, designers who had not used fur before were starting to add fur pieces to their runway collections, as fur became a trend once again (Sauers, 2012). Despite widespread efforts over a number of years by PETA, fur sales were booming, proving that, at least in this case, sex did not sell.

Compounding Problems

The revolving door of celebrity spokespeople has caused PETA some embarrassment, as some of the celebrities who posed for PETA in the past have taken to wearing fur again. Both Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell modelled fur after posing for the “I’d Rather Go Naked” campaign (Rose, 2012). Other celebrity spokespeople, such as Khloe Kardashian, have since cut ties with PETA, giving the appearance that PETA is not very selective in choosing their spokespeople (Rose, 2012). Indeed, campaigns must ensure that celebrities are truly committed to their cause, otherwise a reversal, such as noted here, will do more harm than good, undermining the campaign more than supporting it.

Key Learning Point

The main lessons learned for PR practitioners from PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked” campaign should be that using sex to push an agenda is often not the best choice and to be wary of using well-known public figures as spokespeople. Provocative images do not have a lasting effect on viewers and viewers are unlikely to go through the effort to research a cause further, simply because the campaign features sexualized images. Additionally, if an organization chooses to make use of celebrity spokespeople, they must be selective of who they recruit for their cause and be aware that the individual’s future actions may reflect poorly on the organization.

References

Bousquet, K. (2017). 31 celebrities who got naked for PETA. Stylecaster. http://stylecaster.com/celebrities-who-got-naked-for-peta-ads/

Orbay-Cerrato, M. (2013). Animal rights activism, sexism & the parable of PETA. http://bluestockingsmag.com/2013/11/09/animal-rights-activism-sexism-the-parable-of-peta/

Pennington, L. (2013). Has PETA Gone Too Far? Sexism, Pornography and Advertising. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/louise-pennington/peta-has-it-gone-too-far-sex_b_2425174.html

PETA. (n.d.). All about PETA. https://www.peta.org/about-peta/learn-about-peta/

PETA. (n.d.). Our mission statement. https://www.peta.org/about-peta/

PETA. (n.d.). PETA wants you to go naked to help animals. https://www.peta.org/action/would-rather-go-naked/

PETA. (2017). D∆WN’s ‘graphic’ PETA billboard lands in Detroit. https://www.peta.org/blog/dawn-graphic-peta-billboard/

Reichert, T., Heckler, S. E., & Jackson, S. (2001). The effects of sexual social marketing appeals on cognitive processing and persuasion. Journal of Advertising, 30(1), 13-27.

Rose, M. (2012). The questionable utility of celebrities as animal advocates. http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/02/id-rather-go-naked-than-wait-why-am-i-here/

Sauers, J. (2012). Fur is back big time — Here’s why. Jezebel. https://jezebel.com/5946371/fur-is-back-big-time—heres-why

Sheppard, J. (2014). Nearly naked PETA activist covered with BBQ sauce in Vancouver. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/nearly-naked-peta-activist-covered-with-bbq-sauce-in-vancouver-1.2660194