Saturday, August 08, 2009

PETA Correspondence, Part Two

PETA wrote back. First, their response, then mine. Thanks are due to those who suggested links and provided them in your comments to previous posts.

Dear Kevin,

Thank you for your prompt and thoughtful reply to our previous message.

For many years, animal protection organizations had gone, hat in hand, to the powers that be, asking them politely to stop hurting animals—and making very little progress. Early on, PETA realized that, for groups advocating social change, it's more important to be effective than popular. This doesn't mean that we go out of our way to offend people. On the contrary, we much prefer working in cooperation with companies or agencies to find a solution to a problem, and we're often successful with such negotiations. But many of those meetings may never have occurred if the decision makers weren't eager to avoid the embarrassment of a public campaign.

We're aware that many of our tactics strike some people as being silly or extreme—in fact, we hear it often enough that we've devoted an entire page on our Web site to the topic. But basically, the reason is simple: We do what works. We're always looking for new ways to reach people, but sometimes it seems as though we've tried everything—and I mean everything—practical and legal to get our message across (though, I should add, we have never thrown red paint on fur-wearers, despite that persistent myth), and we keep the things that have proven effective.

PETA works in a wide variety of ways, however, because there is no one method that will work equally well for everyone. As you mentioned, we do use graphic images showing the conditions for animals on factory farms, inside laboratories, etc., and we know that they are disturbing. They upset us, too. But they are also a powerful motivator. Our graphic "Meet Your Meat" video, for instance, is our single most effective vegetarian outreach tool precisely because it upsets people—enough to want to do something about it. Hardly a day goes by when we don't hear from someone that they never "got it" about an issue affecting animals until they saw it with their own eyes. In the end, blaming the messenger doesn't help animals any more than averting our eyes—it takes action.

It will also come as no surprise that the media playing field is far from level. The press isn't eager to cover stories about animal rights—especially since many of our campaigns are directed at changing the policies of the corporations who are major advertisers. So, while some people may roll their eyes at our sexy vegetarian contests, and "nude" demonstrations, or celebrity spokespeople, the media can't ignore them, affording us the opportunity to reach people who may never have thought about how their choices affect animals. Even the skeptics are often curious enough to visit our Web site, where they can learn about many of our programs that rarely make it into media coverage of our organization, from our undercover investigations and animal rescue operations to our doghouse deliveries and mobile spay/neuter clinics.

We agree that it is important to have a "big picture" mentality about social issues—as individuals. As an organization, however, PETA's sole focus is animal rights. There are already far more issues affecting animals than PETA can address, and we owe it to our members to use their donations to help animals, as they intended. Our members and supporters are a diverse group with wide-ranging opinions on social and political matters, so we can't presume to speak for them on any issue other than animal rights. Fortunately, our pro-animal activities, with an emphasis on compassion and responsibility, tend to improve the human condition as well.

Although our more provocative campaigns may challenge some sensibilities, PETA is fortunate to have a large (and rapidly expanding) number of dedicated members and supporters—growing from 800,000 to more than 2 million in just the past five years. And the younger generation "gets it" even more: Our youth outreach division, peta2, has the largest youth following of any social justice movement, animal rights or otherwise. We hope that other motivated people will view our successes as a template that may also help advance other causes.

Thanks again for your reply. I hope that this has given you a better understanding of our thinking on the concerns you raised, and that, even though we may not be in complete agreement, we can still work together on those areas in which we do agree.



Christine Doré

Marketing | PETA


Dear Christine,

In all honesty, I must say I was not expecting a response at all to my last message but I am surprised and grateful to have received such a detailed e-mail from you. As such, your letter deserves a similarly nuanced and extensive reply.

Before I launch into the guts of your argument, allow me to highlight two websites which are highly critical of PETA's methodology and organizational structure. One of these you might be aware of, and one you are probably not.

The Problem With Peta

PETA Kills Animals

Both of these sites register many of the same reservations I have had and highlight many concerns of which I was not aware until I visited. I include these to bolster my arguments and I hope you will take them into consideration in a spirit of constructive criticism.

Now, to your reply. You cite that, in your own words, it's more important be effective than popular. I agree with that sentiment, but as it pertains to PETA, I still have serious doubts that your tactics are truly effective. I will take your word for it that your organization has never advocated, nor participated in throwing paint on fur coats and that said action is based purely in myth, but I simply do not believe that the admitted methods you use, particularly regarding the graphic display of emotionally charged imagery you use to make your point are anything near a rousing success. I contend again that they are viewed by the general public as extreme and radical, winning you few converts and many detractors in the process. Forgive the comparison, but it seems to me that your strategy is much akin to an anti-abortion protester who holds up a sign displaying a graphic picture of an aborted fetus or even holds an aborted fetus in his/her hand purely for the sake of shock value.

I never doubt PETA's motives nor its intent, but I do frequently doubt its strategy. Additionally, I do not doubt that many companies who practice animal cruelty were unwilling to undergo the embarrassment of a full-scale PETA onslaught and under threat of a major campaign revised their practices accordingly. It is the plight of every activist group to figure out how to shake people out of their complacency, make them realize that there is much injustice in the world, direct them in positive channels towards reforming it, and keep their interest in the process for more than just the short term. But again, I have discovered in my own life and own career that resorting to cheap theatrics and publicity stunts is the quickest way to marginalize the message. Perhaps your intention is not to come across as such, but nevertheless this is how you are perceived by many. Don't get me wrong. Everyone knows who and what PETA is, but if you were a politician, you'd have both high name recognition and high negatives. Intentions aside, in this regard, perception IS reality.

I take some liberty with what you've said regarding your impact on the media. The media is inclined to broadcast your events because you frequently resort to---again, whether intended or not----sensationalist, attention-getting means to attain coverage. Increasingly I find that PETA gets all of maybe a minute on the cable news networks and whatever function, protest, or event you're holding gets billed and noted as "PETA's latest crazy stunt" and they then promptly move on to other stories and other matters. PETA doesn't really have much of a shelf life regarding the interest of the media and will never have it so long as you continue to cling to these same ways. While PETA's reluctant coverage is due in part to the fact that, as you correctly point out, many corporations indebted to the news media profit from animal cruelty, PETA is also at fault for managing to appeal to only to one news value. By this I mean that bizarre and strange news stories, i.e., a PETA event, will be covered to some limited degree because they are so different from the norm, but as you may have noticed they have a very short lifespan and rarely hold up in the media more than a day or two. Stories with a greater news value, however, are covered longer, more intensively, and by more outlets. If you can break out of your conventional ways and really think outside the box, then you'll have more friends and adherents then you could even imagine. And to reiterate, PETA's methodology doesn't just offend SOME sensibilities, it offends MANY sensibilities.

In my opinion, PETA's aim ought to be on reinventing itself and its image in the general public. Right now it has a golden opportunity to do so. I encourage PETA to fully use the internet and New Media to get its message across, particularly when the state of the conventional Mainstream Media is in turmoil as it continues to hemorrhage money and advertising revenue as a result. If your organization refuses to take a long, hard, self-reflective look at itself, then it will always appeal to a very narrow demographic group and for every member it attracts, it will repel two.

Thanks for your reply,



Gail said...

Hi Kevin-

I so admire your involvement - and I must say, that I am ALWAYS impressed by your confidence and intelligent expression of your views. You really should be a speech writer for someone who has a voice out there.

Love and respect

Punch said...

Gail is correct.